The Future of Green Hydrogen Production: Our Investment in Ecolectro
By Lisa Coca, Partner, Climate Fund
As the energy transition gains momentum, the search intensifies for more abundant, versatile and inexpensive sources of green power. While other renewables have solidified themselves as viable power sources, the clean energy spotlight has shone particularly bright on hydrogen as a solution because of its potential to become a widely-used, emission-free energy carrier compared to traditional fossil fuels. However, despite its promise, it is clear that in order for hydrogen to reach commercial viability, the industry is in critical need for scalable and cost-effective methods to produce it — which is why I am excited to announce Toyota Ventures’ investment in Ecolectro.
For the past 30 years, solar and wind have been the “darlings” of renewable energy, and widely viewed as backbones of the energy transition. Some of the accolades are well-deserved, given transformative advances in the technologies and resulting price declines that have made them cost-competitive with the cost of adding additional capacity to existing fossil fuel facilities. For instance, between 2010–2020, utility-scale solar photovoltaics (PV) experienced an impressive 85% decline in its levelized cost of electricity. However, while solar and wind have succeeded in checking the box on cost, they do not satisfy the criteria of being abundant, versatile, and energy dense.
Enter … Hydrogen. Hydrogen is already in widespread use, mainly as an industrial feedstock for methanol and ammonia, and it has long been positioned by many as the “fuel of the future.” The promise of hydrogen is due not only to its versatility of applications (see graphic below), but also because it contains almost three times as much energy as fossil fuels and emits nearly zero emissions. It is also the high-energy density and ability to operate in intense environments that make hydrogen uniquely positioned to decarbonize fossil reliant industries and processes that other renewable sources have been unable to touch. This is absolutely critical in the race to achieve net zero.
Not all hydrogen is created equal though, and the holy grail — green hydrogen which is hydrogen produced from renewable energy — is a promise as yet unfulfilled. Most hydrogen produced today is made via steam-methane reforming (SMR), a mature production process in which methane from natural gas is heated with steam and a catalyst to produce hydrogen. Unfortunately, in 2018, this production resulted in about 830 Mt of CO2 emissions, around 2.2% of the global energy-related total. With renewable energy, electrolysis is a promising source of green hydrogen, but it is not currently cost competitive with SMR. This is where Ecolectro comes in.
Ecolectro has developed a world-class anion exchange membrane (AEM) and electrolyzer stack that has the potential to drive the cost of green hydrogen down to $1.35/kg by 2030. However, to fully understand Ecolectro’s breakthrough electrolyzer stack technology, we must first break down the current state of electrolyzers:
There are four electrolyzer technologies, two of which have been commercial-ready for some time: Alkaline and the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM).
Both systems have challenges. Alkaline systems are the most developed and lowest cost, but the least efficient in terms of the environments where they can operate — and they create complications in the purification and compression steps later on in the process. On the flip side, PEM systems produce high-purity hydrogen directly from the stack and have very fast operation. However, the cost of the materials required to achieve long lifetimes and strong performance has been an impediment to adoption. AEM electrolysis has the operational advantages of a PEM system, with the low-cost materials of Alkaline. Unfortunately, degradation of the membrane has been a key limiting factor influencing durability of AEM systems and thus market adoption.
What makes Ecolectro’s AEM and electrolyzer stack so unique? Born out of research in the laboratories of Cornell’s Center for Alkaline Based Energy Systems, Ecolectro is led by an elite team of PhDs, Gabriel G. Rodríguez-Calero (CEO) and Kristina M. Hugar (CSO) who co-developed the technology alongside world class experts in electrochemistry, molecular electronics, fuel cells, batteries, and electrocatalysis.
At the core of Ecolectro’s value proposition is an AEM membrane that has demonstrated significantly superior performance under accelerated stress testing conditions recommended by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. More specifically, the membrane has exhibited little to no cation degradation. A more stable membrane, it reduces operating costs associated with electrolyzer shutdown for maintenance and membrane replacement, as well as allows for AEM electrolyzer operation under more extreme conditions than currently possible.
In addition, Ecolectro’s stack — membrane, porous transport layer, and plates — uses readily available materials, including stamped stainless steel and inexpensive nickel-based electrodes in place of precious metal equivalents required by other electrolyzer technologies. The company’s electrolyzer catalysts can also be recycled. All-in, Ecolectro technology has the potential to reduce overall costs by 78% over traditional PEM electrolyzers. This is truly a game-changer.
An affordable supply of sustainable hydrogen is critical in order to achieve carbon neutrality, and we’re proud to join Ecolectro’s funding round led by Starshot Capital, with participation from TechStars, Energy Revolution Ventures, and others. Visit Ecolectro’s website and the Toyota Ventures portfolio page to learn more.