Ecolectro ($15 million to develop advanced anion exchange membranes for AEM electrolyzers)

Ecolectro, an American cleantech startup founded in 2015, develops advanced anion exchange membranes (AEM) and AEM electrolyzers. Ecolectro’s AEM electrolyzer stack has the potential to reduce overall costs by 78% over traditional PEM electrolyzers and drive the cost of green hydrogen down to $1.35/kg by 2030.

Challenges: hydrogen fuel

Hydrogen fuel

Hydrogen (H₂), the most abundant element in the universe, is not just a fundamental building block of stars—it’s also a vital ingredient in the synthesis of ammonia. Ammonia production is at the heart of creating a plethora of products that we rely on daily, from the fertilizers that nourish our crops to the plastics that are woven into the fabric of modern life.

Traditionally, the world has leaned heavily on steam methane reforming (SMR) to produce over 60 million tons of hydrogen annually. However, this method comes with a significant environmental cost. It’s an energy-intensive process that contributes approximately 2% to the global carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions, releasing between 5 and 9 tons of CO₂ for every ton of hydrogen it generates.

But there’s a cleaner path forward: water electrolysis. This process splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using electric current and comes in various forms, including alkaline water electrolyzer (AWE), proton exchange membrane water electrolyzer (PEMWE), anion exchange membrane (AEM) electrolyzers, and solid oxide electrolysis cells (SOEC). When these electrolyzers are powered by renewable energy sources—think nuclear, solar, and wind power—the result is “green hydrogen”.

Anion exchange membrane (AEM) electrolyzers

Anion exchange membrane (AEM) electrolyzers utilize an anion exchange membrane, which conducts hydroxide ions (OH⁻) and separates hydrogen and oxygen gasses produced during electrolysis. This technology combines the benefits of both alkaline water electrolysis (AWE) and proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysis, offering a potentially lower-cost and more efficient method for hydrogen production.

AEM electrolyzers offer several advantages over traditional electrolysis technologies:

  • AEM electrolyzers are less sensitive to impurities in the water supply. They can run on pure water or slightly alkaline solutions, offering flexibility in operation.
  • AEM electrolyzers can use non-noble, low-cost metal catalysts and less expensive bipolar plates because a higher pH is good for producing oxygen and lowering overpotentials. This makes the system much cheaper overall.

Despite their potential, the stability and longevity of the anion exchange membranes under operational conditions remain areas of concern.

Ecolectro Technology

Ecolectro has developed advanced anion exchange membranes made up of polymer electrolytes that are infiltrated in porous polymer supports. Ecolectro’s AEMs successfully combine the electrochemical properties of the polymer electrolytes with the structural rigidity and mechanical strength of the supports. This allows Ecolectro to fabricate favorably thin AEMs with good chemical stability, high ion exchange capacity and excellent mechanical and thermal stability, which can enable high-efficient AEM electrolyzers.

Ecolectro anion exchange membrane

The diagram below depicts the composition of Ecolectro’s AEM.

Ecolectro anion exchange membrane composition (ref. US20230265571A1)
Ecolectro anion exchange membrane composition (ref. US20230265571A1).

Ecolectro’s AEM comprises a polyelectrolyte and a porous polymer support.

  • Polymer electrolytes

Polymer electrolytes are composed of tetrakis(dialkylamino) phosphonium cations appended to non-aromatic hydrocarbon backbones that are essentially modified polyethylene. Polyelectrolytes with phosphonium, like Tetrakis® polymer, are an important part that makes it possible for AEM electrolyzers to be widely used.

Tetrakis® polymer consists of phosphonium moieties and inherently stable polyethylene-like backbones. These features exhibit unprecedented chemical durability under the most aggressive conditions, making AEMs with these features very strong candidates for high-performance products.

Tetrakis® polymer (ref. US20230265571A1)
Tetrakis® polymer (ref. US20230265571A1)

However, while chemically resistant, polyethylene is known to be viscoelastic (low stress tolerance) and deforms at temperatures around 100 ºC. (low heat tolerance). The mechanical and thermal properties of the AEMs can be reinforced by using porous supports.

  • Porous supports

Porous polymer supports are typically designed for the filtration and separation of solids, liquids, and gasses or to sterilize biological solutions. Polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) supports are polymers with high chemical resistance and can be used as porous supports.

PTFE exhibits the best thermal properties. However, it is a very expensive raw material and not recyclable. Moreover, the processing method to fabricate porous PTFE is limited to expanding.

PE and PP are both significantly less expensive and more easily processed than PTFE. They are both recyclable. Although their thermal properties are significantly lower than PTFE, we can address this disadvantage by cross-linking the polymer electrolyte inside the support. We can easily process PE or PP fibers to fabricate porous support mats or sheets with optimized pore sizes, thickness, and mechanical strength.

How Ecolectro fabricates anion exchange membrane

The diagram below depicts the fabrication of Ecolectro’s AEM.

Ecolectro anion exchange membrane fabrication process (ref. US20230265571A1)
Ecolectro anion exchange membrane fabrication process (ref. US20230265571A1).
  1. The porous supports are cleaned with ethanol to remove contaminants from manufacturing.
  2. The cleaned porous support film is submerged in Tetrakis® polyelectrolyte solution to fill the pores of the support with polymer electrolyte.
  3. The porous support film infiltrated with Tetrakis® polyelectrolyte is air-dried on a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) backing sheet to remove organic solvents.
  4. Add water to lift the final dried AEM composite from the backing. The AEM composite can be hydrated at 80 ºC in water overnight.

Advantages of Ecolectro’s AEM

Unsupported Tetrakis® membranes can be made to a 30 μm thickness that are easy to handle and manipulate. However, using supports allows for a wider range of thicknesses by casting membranes into thin composite materials.

In addition, the mechanical and chemical durability of the porous support can be optimized separately from the optimization of the ionic conductivity of the polymer electrolyte. So, the final composite can benefit from the way the porous support’s properties can be tailored to fit its needs and the polyelectrolyte’s ability to conduct electricity in a precise way.

Ecolectro Patent

  • US20230265571A1 Polymer electrolyte composites
  • WO2023018765A8 Cyclooctene-benzophenone monomer, as well as cationic polymer, cross-linked polyelectrolyte, composite material, membrane, electrode and electrochemical device, e.g. electrolyzer, prepared therefrom

Ecolectro Technology Applications

  • Renewable Energy Storage

Green hydrogen serves as a versatile energy carrier that can store surplus renewable energy.

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar can use their excess electricity to power electrolysis, a process that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. During periods of high demand or low renewable energy generation, fuel cells can store the hydrogen and later reconvert it into electricity. This process addresses the intermittency issue of renewable energy sources and allows for long-duration storage, making green hydrogen a critical component in achieving a balanced and resilient energy grid.

  • Industrial Applications

Various industrial processes extensively use hydrogen. It is a key feedstock in the production of ammonia for fertilizers, in oil refining to remove sulfur from fuels, and in methanol production. The transition to green hydrogen in these applications can significantly reduce carbon emissions. For instance, in steelmaking, hydrogen can replace coal, leading to a reduction in CO₂ emissions. Hydrogen also serves as a hydrogenating agent in the food industry and in the production of hydrochloric acid.

  • Aviation and fuel

Researchers are exploring green hydrogen as a potential aviation fuel, either directly or as a component of synthetic aviation fuels (SAFs). We can burn it in modified jet turbines or use it in fuel cells to power electric motors for aircraft propulsion.

For instance, Airbus is developing concept aircraft that could run on hydrogen and join fleets by 2035. However, significant challenges remain, including the need for new aircraft designs to accommodate hydrogen storage and the development of refueling infrastructure.

Ecolectro Products

Ecolectro has developed anion exchange membranes and AEM electrolyzers, which are designed to reduce the capital costs of hydrogen technologies and enhance the efficiency and durability of the AEM electrolyzers.

Ecolectro Funding

Ecolectro has raised a total of $15.2M in funding over 18 rounds:

Their latest funding was raised on Dec 5, 2023 from a Venture – Series Unknown round.

The funding types of Ecolectro.
The funding types of Ecolectro.
The cumulative raised funding of Ecolectro.
The cumulative raised funding of Ecolectro.

Ecolectro Investors

Ecolectro is funded by 14 investors:

US Department of Energy and Energy Revolution Ventures are the most recent investors.

The funding rounds by investors of Ecolectro.
The funding rounds by investors of Ecolectro.

Ecolectro Founder

Gabriel G. Rodríguez-Calero and Kristina Hugar are Co-Founder.

Ecolectro CEO

Gabriel G. Rodríguez-Calero is CEO.

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