With only 60 people, Hull-based startup HiiROC thinks it can contribute to the solution. The business, which was founded in 2019 by Tim Davies, Simon Morris, and Ate Wiekamp, claims to have created technology that would enable the production of low-cost, zero-emission hydrogen on an industrial scale. Since the gas is produced where it will be used, the financial and logistical issues associated with storage and distribution are avoided.
Currently, producing hydrogen involves either electrolyzing water or reacting methane with steam at high temperatures, a process known as steam methane reforming. Analysts predict that both processes will have difficulties until the market reaches maturity because the former generates a lot of carbon dioxide and the latter uses a lot of energy.
According to Davies, HiiROC’s chief executive, “if you look at hydrogen being a fuel to help the globe reach net zero, then you need another means to make it.”
The company claims that its process, known as thermal plasma electrolysis, can turn biomethane, flare gas, or natural gas into clean hydrogen at a cost equal to steam methane reforming while omitting the resulting pollutants. Additionally, it costs less than water electrolysis.
Simply said, HiiROC splits apart the molecules of methane inside a plasma torch using a very strong electric field to produce hydrogen and a solid residue called carbon black. In the process, “emerald” hydrogen is produced, as opposed to “turquoise” hydrogen, which is produced by heating methane or other hydrocarbons in an inert atmosphere, according to Davies. According to Davies, the HiiROC process is “electrically powered.”
The process is different because it produces carbon black rather than carbon dioxide and then stores the gas. The byproduct can be utilized to enhance the quality of soil or be added to common materials like rubber for tires. HiiROC generates 3 kg of carbon black from methane for every 1 kilogram of hydrogen it produces.
Davies downplays worries that the method depends on fossil fuels. According to him, the idea behind the technology is that it will “hopefully be a worldwide answer to a global problem.”
He continues, “Hydrocarbons are good fuels.” “They are quite energetic. The carbon dioxide that is created is the issue. Hydrocarbons can continue to be useful fuels if we can find a technique to decarbonize them, and we can utilize the hydrogen that results from that process.
With a focus on energy security and net zero commitments driving demand across several sectors, low-carbon hydrogen investment has soared in recent years. The International Energy Agency reports that nine states have only recently embraced a hydrogen strategy. According to the IEA, 26 governments have also agreed to use hydrogen as a sustainable energy source in their energy systems.
However, a recent report on behalf of 45 world leaders found that by 2030, yearly investments in hydrogen might reach $130 billion in order to avert the catastrophic effects of climate change. It also noted that the current level of investment is less than $1 billion.
Other big obstacles still exist, such as how to scale up production, particularly of blue hydrogen, which has its carbon dioxide byproduct absorbed, and so-called green hydrogen, which is produced from the electrolysis of water using renewable energy. According to Murray Douglas, head of hydrogen research at Wood Mackenzie, “we are already seeing a significant amount of momentum building in both blue and green hydrogen, and we will see costs continue to reduce.”
The key challenge for further emerging forms of hydrogen, like turquoise, will be to demonstrate its “commercial scale,” according to Douglas.
However, investors have begun to pay attention and have put millions of dollars into technological start-ups despite this year’s market turmoil.
Monolith, a company established in Nebraska that also uses plasma-torch technology, is one of HiiROC’s main rivals. In recent months, the US company has attracted a number of well-known investors, including BlackRock, which assisted in leading a funding round totaling more than $300 million. Additionally, the US Department of Energy approved a $1 billion loan for the corporation to increase output this year.
HiiROC initially funded itself while it developed its technology. The business subsequently raised £2.5 million during a funding round in 2020, which was sufficient to fund the construction of the first prototype units that demonstrated the technology’s viability outside of the research laboratory, according to Davies. In 2021, HiiROC raised £28 million, which attracted a variety of investors, including the energy business Centrica, the cement manufacturer Cemex, the manufacturing giant Melrose Industries, and the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai. Earlier supporters included German energy providers Wintershall Dea and VNG.
After the investment rounds, Davies won’t tell exactly who exactly owns what percentage of the company, but she does indicate that none of the founders individually hold more than 20%. Each and every worker is a shareholder.
Next year, HiiROC will begin a number of test initiatives with its backers using the funds it raised in 2021. One is a facility with Wintershall Dea and VNG in Germany, with a nominal capacity of 400kg of hydrogen per day, or roughly 5GWh of energy output annually. The businesses are already in discussions about a prospective location in eastern Germany as well as with potential hydrogen consumers.
On the other hand, Cemex is investigating the advantages of adding carbon black to concrete. The company also anticipates that its agreement will enable it to employ more alternative fuels and boost hydrogen injection capacity in its cement kilns, reducing methane emissions.
HiiROC intends to lease out its units in return for a utilization charge and already has a few non-investor clientele lined up. Davies thinks the company’s technology might be commercialized as early as 2024. He continues by saying that the business wants to demonstrate how adaptable and universal its technology is.
Davies claims that HiiROC’s European and UK clients are “far more focused on the idea that we can use waste gas or flare gas” to make hydrogen but without carbon dioxide emissions” in light of the situation in Ukraine and the spike in natural gas costs, particularly in Europe.
Although interest in alternative energy sources has surely increased as a result of the conflict, even hydrogen executives admit that fuel is not the solution to every industry’s carbon footprint issue. According to some analysts, hydrogen should primarily be used by high-energy consumers, with renewable energy sources powering less energy-intensive enterprises.
One analyst claims that although hydrogen is currently in a bit of a bubble, it will undoubtedly play a part and that various hydrogen technologies will be needed for various uses along the way. Source: FT