The pioneering cultivated meat venture capital firm Agronomics has just put up a nice chunk of change to help the hydrogen startup HydGene Renewable launch its new green hydrogen scheme straight at the heart of fossil fuels. The connection to lab-grown meat is not obvious at first glance, but it all makes sense somehow.
Many Paths To A Green Hydrogen Future
Whether or not you agree with fuel cell cars, hydrogen is ubiquitous throughout industrialized economies for fuel, fertilizer, and various industrial processes, among other uses. The global hydrogen economy currently rests on a planet-killing brew of natural gas as the main source, with coal also playing a role. Now that catastrophic climate change is looming, more sustainable sources are needed.
Another water-to-hydrogen technology based on renewables is the “artificial leaf” concept, in which a photoelectrochemical cell is dunked in water. The cell steers solar energy to a catalyst that provokes a hydrogen-producing reaction.
Researchers have also been cutting human-made equipment out of the picture entirely, by tweaking the metabolic pathways of microorganisms to produce hydrogen in a microbial fuel cell. One such example crossed the CleanTechnica radar back in 2013, and the field has grown considerably since then.
Fermentation To The Rescue, With Upcycling
Fermentation is another pathway that cropped up back in the 2010s, and it looks like all that hard work is beginning to pay off. HydGene has come up with a biocatalyst for producing green hydrogen through fermentation. The process is analogous to beer making, only instead of hops and grains, HydGene is looking to other sources, with an initial focus on upcycling waste biomass.
“Using Synthetic biology, we have engineered a next generation biocatalyst that is able to convert carbohydrates extracted from biomass into hydrogen at unprecedented rates and yields. Our biocatalyst is extremely robust and tolerant to compounds that are typically toxic to microorganisms,” HydGene explains.
HydGene can also deploy its biocatalyst to draw green hydrogen from other sources, including wastewater and purpose-grown energy crops, which the company refers to as “designated energy crops.”
If that’s the same as dedicated energy crops, that provides for a wide array of sourcing. Here in the US, the Department of Energy defines dedicated energy crops as “non-food crops that can be grown on marginal land…specifically to provide biomass.” That casts a wide net, including switchgrass, miscanthus, bamboo, and other herbaceous perennials. The Energy Department also lists poplar, hybrid willow, silver maple, eastern cottonwood, green ash, black walnut, sweetgum, and sycamore as designated energy crops in the woody category.
“Many of these species can help improve water and soil quality, improve wildlife habitat relative to annual crops, diversify sources of income, and improve overall farm productivity,” the Energy Department points out.
On-Site Green Hydrogen To Nix Leak Risk
Green hydrogen or not, scientists are beginning to raise concerns about the risk of leaks, leading to a buildup of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. One way to reduce those risks is to produce green hydrogen locally or on-site, rather than transporting it over long distances, or storing it for long periods, or both. HydGene has that base covered as well.
The company has come up with a compact, cartridge-based system that puts the biocatalyst to work only when needed, producing hydrogen on demand and on-site without the need for storage facilities.
When the biocatalysts run out of steam, the spent cartridges are replaced with fresh ones. They are also designed to be modular and stack-able, so scaling up or down is a matter of adding or removing cartridges.
No Solar Panels? No Wind Turbines? No Problem!
HydGene is also excited about the potential for its bio-based green hydrogen process to slip under the radar of anti-renewable energy foes, who have been organizing against solar arrays and wind farms in rural areas.
“The footprint of our technology is smaller than a solar or wind farm per energy produced and can be readily deployed on site for the end user and eliminate the need to transport hydrogen,” HydGene enthuses.
Cutting transportation and storage out of the green hydrogen picture is a cost saver. HydGene also points out that its biocatalysts produce hydrogen that is pure enough to feed directly into a fuel cell. All in all, HyGene anticipates that its process can compete on cost with both fossil-sourced hydrogen and electrolysis.
“Our projections show that we can produce hydrogen cost-competitively with hydrogen made from fossil fuels and electrolysis when at scale. In fact, since we eliminate storage and transport of hydrogen, our levelised costs of hydrogen will be cheaper for the end-user than any other existing hydrogen technology,” the company asserts.
Lab Meat & Green Hydrogen, Perfect Together
That remains to be seen. The big question is, where does London-based Agronomics fit into the picture?
That’s a good question. Cutting the carbon footprint of lab-grown meat and other cellular agriculture operations is one important goal for the industry overall. Another could involve the ability to decentralize and scale down the growing operations.
CleanTechnica is reaching out to the company for more insights. Meanwhile, Agronomics is not letting the grass grow under its feet. The firm already has a portfolio of 20 or so companies under its belt, and on June 6th, it announced an investment of AUD 2.5 million (about US$1.7 million) in HydGene, as part of a seed financing round.
Last week, Agronomics also cut loose with another press release in celebration of UPSIDE Foods, Inc., another company in its portfolio. UPSIDE just received label approval from the US Department of Agriculture, following last year’s approval from the Food and Drug Administration. According to Agronomics, UPSIDE is “the first cell-cultivated meat company in the world to receive Label Approval from the US Department of Agriculture.”
The next step involves a USDA inspection of the facility. The co-founder and Executive Director of Agronomics, Jim Mellon, used the occasion to clap back at those who think the FDA should be neutralized or abolished, or both (looking at you, Judge Kacsmaryk).
“US regulations for food safety are some of the most stringent in the world, such that the decisions of the FDA and USDA pave the way for other jurisdictions across the globe to approve the sale of cellular food products,” Mellon said.
Find me on Spoutible: @TinaMCasey or LinkedIn @TinaMCasey or Mastodon @Casey or Post: @tinamcasey
Photo: Green hydrogen could play a role in the lab-grown food supply of the future (photo courtesy of Agronomics).
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