A Seattle-based start-up that wants customers to produce their own turquoise hydrogen from natural gas — and then burn it to produce zero-carbon heat and power — has attracted $30m of funding from investors including Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates.
Modern Electron says the new investment — from an oversubscribed Series B funding round — will be used to “deploy hydrogen production pilots that demonstrate affordable decarbonisation of gas heating without any new infrastructure”, and to integrate its proprietary technologies into heating appliances.
“Modern Electron’s next-generation distributed hydrogen production technology addresses rapidly increasing market demand for heating without CO2 emissions inside residential and commercial buildings, as well as the industrial sector,” the Seattle-based company said in a statement.
“Notably, Modern Electron’s distributed hydrogen production can decarbonise applications where existing renewable electrification technologies struggle and proposed infrastructure solutions such as a ‘hydrogen grid’ are years away and expensive.”
The company’s main technology offering is a small thermionic converter that converts waste heat in a gas boiler to electricity. But it now says it is developing new technology that will split natural gas (mainly methane, or CH4) into hydrogen (H2) and solid carbon (C) in the form of graphite powder. The turquoise hydrogen would then be burned for the production of heat and power, while the graphite would be thrown away or collected for re-use.
According to Modern Electron CEO Tony Pan, the energy savings from the thermionic converter will offset the additional costs and efficiency losses of the combined system.
The amount of natural gas needed to heat your home would remain the same, but you would be left with 1-2kg — about a litre — of dusty carbon powder every day.
“Before now there’s been no low-cost, drop-in solution to improve the efficiency and reduce emissions from heating currently dominated by gas,” said chief technology officer Max Mankin. “This is especially true in cold climates, existing buildings, and industrial process heating.
“Our technology stretches more useful energy and value out of any fuel use, and we’re paving the way for the hydrogen future.”
Curiously, Modern Electron has revealed next to nothing about its hydrogen-production technology, merely stating that it would be about the size of a small appliance.
Turning natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon requires the methane to be heated at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen so that CO2 cannot be formed — a process called pyrolysis that several companies around the world are trying to commercialise.
However, it is worth noting that turquoise hydrogen — so-called because it is greener than blue H2 derived from natural gas with CO2 capture and storage — cannot be said to be emission-free. After all, methane — which is 86 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period — often leaks upstream. And burning H2 results in the formation of nitrous oxides (NOx), which are also greenhouse gases, although these could largely be controlled by catalytic-converter-like add-ons.
The $30m Series B funding round was led by At One Ventures, which was founded by former Google X boss Tom Chi, with further venture capital coming from existing investors Bill Gates and MetaPlanet, and new investors Extantia, Starlight Ventures, Valo Ventures, Irongrey and Wieland Group.