Author: Ed Ballard Source: (
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Kevin Bush, left, and Caleb Boyd developed a new way of making low-carbon hydrogen from methane. The challenge is scaling it up. PHOTO: REENIE RASCHKE
Some people used their pandemic downtime to perfect sourdough recipes or try new fitness regimes. Kevin Bush and Caleb Boyd developed a new way of making hydrogen, using the electric-vehicle charger in a California garage to heat a home-built reactor above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
"We had a lenient landlord," Mr. Bush said.
This week, their company, Molten Industries, was named one of the super-early-stage projects funded by a fellowship program run by Bill Gates's Breakthrough Energy. The program doesn't disclose how much money it distributes, but the list of recipients gives an inkling of this influential investor's vision of the future of energy.
Most hydrogen is produced from natural gas, but it can be made by passing a current through water using a machine called an electrolyzer. If the electrolyzer runs on low-carbon electricity, the product involves minimal emissions and is called green hydrogen. It could be a key technology for decarbonizing the economy. As well as being used to make ammonia for fertilizer--one of hydrogen's main existing uses--it could theoretically replace fossil fuels in industrial processes such as steelmaking.
But there isn't enough of it. The International Renewable Energy Agency says that for countries to keep their emissions-cutting promises, global electrolyzer capacity needs to grow to 350 gigawatts by 2030, from just 0.5 gigawatts in 2021. Even with support from governments in the U.S. and Europe, that looks tough. According to data from Aurora Energy Research, capacity could exceed 200 gigawatts by 2030--if electrolyzer manufacturers hit their targets and don't suffer shortages of rare-earth metals.
Green hydrogen can compete on cost with hydrogen made from gas in places where natural gas is very expensive, Aurora says. But lower costs would be needed to make hydrogen viable for heavy industry. The U.S. Department of Energy last year launched a program aimed at slashing costs by 80% to $1 a kilogram by 2030.
Cleantech investors are betting on startups to speed things along. Some, like Hysata, an Australian company that recently raised nearly $30 million, are working on more efficient electrolyzers. Others, like Molten, don't use electrolyzers.
Conventional hydrogen is produced by heating natural gas, which is largely methane, and using steam to split it into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Molten also starts with methane, but it uses electricity to heat its reactor and turn the gas into hydrogen and solid carbon. If powered by renewable energy, this process avoids the greenhouse gas emissions.
A key obstacle, Mr. Bush said, is preventing the newly formed carbon from clogging the reactor. After months of tinkering, he and Mr. Boyd--who worked on solar technology together during their Ph.Ds at Stanford--overcame that challenge last summer by devising a new way of directing heat in the device, he said.
They quit their jobs to focus on the project, even though the system could only produce a kilogram or so of hydrogen a day. The International Renewable Energy Agency's scenario would need over 600 million tons of low-carbon hydrogen a year by 2050, produced using a vast amount of wind and solar power.
Molten "invented a new, scalable approach to hydrogen production in a garage with their spare time," said Alex Teng of Fifty Years, which alongside Union Square Ventures led Molten's $2 million funding round, separate from the Breakthrough award. "How could we not back a team like that?"
Years ahead, Mr. Bush envisions methane being captured from agricultural waste and sent through existing oil-and-gas pipelines to Molten's hydrogen plants, which would have their own renewable energy supply and sit next to factories that buy its hydrogen. In theory, he says, the system could make hydrogen using a fraction of the electricity that electrolyzers need.
First, Molten needs to get out of the garage. Mr. Bush and Mr. Boyd plan to hire some engineers and build a test system in a former steel mill in Oakland that will produce 50 kilograms-plus of hydrogen a day.
"Electrolyzers have been around for decades," Mr. Bush said. "For us, it's a new technology. We have to prove its operational stability."