The H2Pro team.
Photo courtesy H2Pro.
Talmon Marco admits he is not the expected climate technologist.
In 2010, he co-founded mobile messaging company Viber, which was acquired in 2014 by Japanese Internet company Rakuten for $900 million. In 2015, Marco co-founded ride-hailing company Juno, which was acquired in 2017 by the Israeli transportation company Gett for $200 million.
In the years after Juno was acquired, Marco changed his focus to making the world better. “There are obviously a lot of problems in the world, but the one that we felt was closest to our heart is the climate crisis.”
Marco began looking for technologies that could be used to combat climate change and in his research, he became connected with faculty members at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, who were working on a technology that produces hydrogen in a nonconventional way.
That science became the framework for Marco’s next company, H2Pro, which is one of a crop of start-ups trying to speed the clean energy revolution by focusing on new ways to make hydrogen.
When hydrogen is burned in a controlled environment not exposed to the air, it generates energy in the form of heat, with water as a byproduct. (Hydrogen does make nitrogen oxides when burned in air, as does anything when it is burned in air.) By contrast, burning fossil fuels releases dangerous greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide.
Hydrogen is already a key commodity in a variety of industrial processes and in making ammonia fertilizer, which is critical to generate enough food to feed the global population. But because, when burned in a controlled environment it releases no greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also being explored as a potential fuel replacement for some hard to decarbonize sectors and for energy storage.
That said: pure hydrogen has to be produced — it does not exist on its own in abundant quantities on earth.
The cheapest way of producing hydrogen is from natural gas, but that process results in carbon dioxide emissions. The collection and storage of natural gas also inevitably leads to methane emissions, a dangerous greenhouse gas.
Another way of producing hydrogen is by breaking up water, H2O, into its component parts with electricity.
This is conventionally done with a water-splitting device called an electrolyzer. If it is powered with clean energy, it can be a clean pathway to generating hydrogen. It’s expensive, though, and that’s a problem.
To drive down the cost of hydrogen requires cheap energy, high efficiency and low cost of equipment, Marco said. And for hydrogen to be clean, or “green” according to the color-coded nomenclature, it also needs to be powered by renewable, or clean, energy.
H2Pro doesn’t have a hand in determining the price of renewable energy, but “the assumption is the cost of renewable energy is already fairly low, and will continue to get even lower,” Marco told CNBC.
Inside H2Pro’s lab in Caesarea, Israel, where electrodes that are at the heart of H2Pro’s E-TAC system are manufactured.
In a typical electrolyzer, the hydrogen and oxygen are produced at the same time when the water is split. Having those two gasses together is dangerous because if hydrogen gas and oxygen gas are sparked (a possibility in an electric system), then they explode. To prevent this from happening, an electrolyzer must have a membrane to separate the oxygen and hydrogen gasses.
“The membrane makes it a very, very complicated construct. And that construct causes electrolyzers to be expensive,” Marco told CNBC.
The H2Pro solution does not require a membrane to keep the hydrogen and oxygen separate, Marco says. It’s not technically an electrolyzer, since part of the process is not electrochemical.
Also, a typical electrolyzer is about 70% efficient, meaning that about 30% of the energy that goes into an electrolyzer gets lost to heat. The H2Pro technology will be 95% efficient, Marco said.
That’s because the H2Pro system generates its own heat in the reaction. “We don’t need to input heat into the system. It generates its own heat to maintain the reaction,” Marco told CNBC. “That heat doesn’t cost us anything.” (The science is explained in more detail in a Nature scientific paper here.)
The technology is still very early days, and was pioneered by three scientists at Technion: Hen Dotan, who’s now H2Pro’s chief technical officer, and professors Gideon Grader and Avner Rothschild.
H2Pro aims to have pilot systems being tested in 2023 and utility scale systems in 2024. On Tuesday, H2Pro announced it has raised $75 million from investors including Bill Gates‘ climate tech investing fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and ArcelorMittal, a global leading steel and mining company. This most recent funding brings its total funding to $107 million.
If H2Pro can make green hydrogen, that could help decarbonize the process that makes steel, which is one reason ArcelorMittal invested.
“Although the technology required to directly reduce iron ore using hydrogen still needs to mature, the greater challenge with this new method of ironmaking is the cost and availability of the energy input – green hydrogen,” Pinakin Chaubal, chief technology officer at ArcelorMittal, said in a written statement.
Along the way, Marco has learned one major lesson, “Hardware is more difficult,” he said. “With software, you write the code and you are ready to go. Hardware is slower, more complicated, more challenging.”
Manufacturing a product and dealing with supply chain problems and inefficiencies are among the reasons.
“But at the same time, what I have here, which I did not have in my other companies, definitely not to this extent, is feeling that you’re saving the world,” Marco said. “And I think that’s worth the extra hassle.”
The H2Pro system, seen here at the company lab in Caesarea, Israel, sits inside a large container.
Photo courtesy H2Pro.