Hydrogen is everywhere. It is the most abundant element in the universe. The problem? It’s scarce as a gas, the form in which it’s needed to provide clean fuel to homes and businesses.
On Earth, hydrogen is found in the greatest quantities as water. But the two primary ways of splitting hydrogen and oxygen atoms apart either produces CO2 as waste, or it’s prohibitively expensive due to the high energy input.
HiiROC, a Hull-based startup, has developed a third way to produce hydrogen that comes at a lower cost and with zero emissions. The solution is based on patented plasma torch technology that the company has developed and is currently being fine-tuned at the startup’s laboratories.
Once deployed across industrial settings, it could help to fully unleash hydrogen’s potential.
How does HiiROC work?
The company’s hydrogen generation units use feedstock gases such as methane, flare gas or biomethane at high pressure and with a very high electrical field between an anode and cathode.
This dissembles the tightly bound molecules into hydrogen and carbon atoms, with both coming out as a plasma (like a gas). The carbon is instantly cooled and solidified as pure carbon, which means no carbon dioxide is formed, in a quenching process to stop it from reforming back into the input gas.
The end product is hydrogen and carbon black, a material used in rubber tires, inks and paint.
It’s a material that has wide industrial use, but current production methods create large amounts of CO2 and other environmentally harmful biproducts.
“Our process is emission-free,” says HiiROC co-founder and CEO Tim Davies. “Because all you’ve got is hydrogen and solid carbon – they are the two products.”
For every kilogram of hydrogen produced using HiiROC units, you’re left with three kilograms of carbon black. This, however, is a potentially valuable, clean solid by-product and does not contribute to global warming unlike processes that create carbon dioxide gas.
The company has its sights firmly set on revolutionising hydrogen production. It is on the cusp of putting the technology to the test in industrial settings and, if all goes to plan, it could transform energy generation in the UK and beyond.
HiiROC was founded in 2019 by Davies, Simon Morris (chief commercial officer), and Ate Wiekamp (chief science officer).
The trio bring with them decades of experience in high-tech industries, scientific expertise and FTSE 250 managing director experience.
After global testing house SGS independently verified the technology, the work began in earnest in late 2020, with HiiROC securing Series A funding.
This provided the capital for the two labs in Hull where HiiROC conducts tests to develop, certify and verify the technology.
But as the company gained momentum, Covid-19 struck. Lockdowns ensued, supply chains became more difficult and laboratory work became more challenging.
However, driven by success in the development work, in November 2021, HiiROC secured additional funding in a Series B round, bringing the total capital raised to £30m. It counts the likes of German natural gas producer Wintershall Dea, investment firm HydrogenOne Capital, Centrica and automotive manufacturer Hyundai among its strategic and financial backers.
With the UK free from lockdowns, and armed with fresh funding, HiiROC steamed ahead with development.
Earlier this year, HiiROC entered KPMG’s Private Enterprise Tech Innovator in the UK competition. The annual event saw more than 200 scaleups across the breadth of the UK pitch their innovative business ideas, with each aiming to tackle the world’s biggest societal challenges, competing in regional finals before being whittled down to 12 finalists nationally.
After a hotly contested quick-fire round of pitching in front of judges at Leeds’s Nexus centre, HiiROC was crowned champion.
Since then, HiiROC has seen interest in its technology step up and its profile raised.
“We have definitely seen an increase in inbound enquiries from a number of parties,” says Davies, who delivered the winning pitch. “Our credibility in initial conversations with other parties has strengthened. This raised profile has increased awareness in the hydrogen issue generally – how to make it in new, better and cheaper ways – and for HiiROC in particular. And, of course, appreciation from shareholders.”
HiiROC’s business model
Conversations with potential partners are a key part of the next step of HiiROC’s journey as it looks to commercialise the technology.
Hydrogen molecules are small and difficult to pressurise. This makes it difficult to store and transport them, while the UK’s national grid of pipework isn’t fit for carrying large amounts of hydrogen.
To counter this problem, HiiROC plans to install its machines on customers’ sites where they can be connected directly to waste gas, biomethane or gas pipes thereby avoiding storage and transport issues.
It plans to bring in revenue by leasing its machines to companies charging on the output of hydrogen and carbon.
Lots of industries need hydrogen, which means HiiROC has a broad range of potential customers.
Their smallest machine can produce up to 100 kilograms of hydrogen per day. But due to their modular design and small size, they can easily be stacked up to increase output, making them scalable for businesses requiring large-scale industrial hydrogen production.
Before that, though, HiiROC is looking to pilot its technology at companies across a range of industries. The first pilots, which will take place in the UK and North Europe, are expected to start in early 2023.
It is looking to partner with companies with multiple sites so that the technology can easily be expanded and scaled.
HiiROC is also working with universities to explore new ways to use carbon black, such as adding it to concrete in the construction industry, to enhance the circular nature of the hydrogen-making process.
But in the immediate future, HiiROC faces another challenge: battling it out with tech innovators from 21 other countries for the crown of KPMG Global Tech Innovator 2022.
The final will take place on 2 November in Lisbon, alongside Web Summit.
“It is tremendously exciting, a fantastic opportunity, but a huge challenge: the competition for the regional heats and national final was intense – some amazing ideas, and brilliant presentations – and the final in Lisbon will be an even bigger step up,” says Davies.
“It will be a great opportunity to highlight new ways to make low-cost, zero-emission hydrogen to a global audience, which will doubtless include potential partners, suppliers, investors, advisors, policymakers and thought leaders.”