Category: Innovation Infrastructure | Published on 03/05/2022
Green hydrogen is essential to the transition towards a low-carbon economy and achieving the 2050 climate goals. VSPARTICLE, a spin-off from TU Delft, has developed a cheaper and easier production process for the electro-catalytic membranes required to produce green hydrogen. By accelerating large-scale hydrogen production and making it more sustainable, VSPARTICLE has instantly turned South Holland into a frontrunner in the global hydrogen economy. This revolutionary technology will also facilitate promising, sustainable innovations in other sectors.
Green hydrogen tends to be produced through electrolysis. Water is separated into hydrogen and oxygen particles using electrocatalytic membranes made of nano particles fixed on an ultra-thin film. For the last 50 years, these membranes have been procured through a seven-step process.
According to VSPARTICLE CEO Aaike van Vugt, this was a needlessly laborious and difficult procedure: “Every step adds cost and increases the margin for production errors. Besides, the process is by nature made more complex as it requires a troubling amount of harmful liquids and chemicals. Then there is the iridium dependency. Iridium is one of the scarcest and most expensive elements on earth.”
Energy & Climate innovation programme
The regional Energy & Climate innovation programme is an initiative of the province of Zuid-Holland, Metropolitan Region Rotterdam The Hague (MRDH), TNO and InnovationQuarter. The programme spearheads sustainable innovation by financing projects and stimulating collaboration and knowledge transfer between businesses and field labs. In 2021, VSPARTICLE received the largest grant out of 15 selected parties. VSPARTICLE is running pilots at TNO and the DIFFER research institute in conjunction with field lab FLIE.
Having worked on the Nanoprinter for the last seven years, Aaike says the machine makes the nanoparticle generation process cleaner, cheaper and considerably faster. He compares it to an inkjet printer working with four colours to create an endless spectrum of hues.
Aaike explains: “The Nanoprinter has the capacity to synthesise 62 basic elements, such as zinc, aluminium and titanium, forming a near infinite number of materials, which can also be transformed into nanoparticles. The machine’s flexibility opens the door to other applications for electrolysis, for example, by transferring harvested CO2 into new building blocks for the chemical industry.”
This unique technology foreshadows how many sectors will approach sustainability, from logistics to health care. It represents a giant leap. Aaike says: “Imagine a more sustainable fuel for airplanes or a hyper-sensitive sensor in a smartphone, analysing pathogens in a user’s breath.”
The Nanoprinter can also help transform CO2 into methanol, another sustainable fuel resource for the shipping industry.
“The Nanoprinter can reduce the time it takes to synthesise novel nanoparticles from years to days or even hours.”
– Aaike van Vugt, CEO VSPARTICLE
Aaike considers this the beginning of a paradigm shift: “We can introduce increasingly small structures into materials, making computer chips much more compact, stronger and faster. Such detailed material structures adhere to a different set of natural laws.”
He says we are then talking about quantum mechanics, material properties that have the capacity to change at an exponential rate. Such rate of change holds great promise for vital issues such as the climate problem.
According to Aaike, “Our current capacity to create green hydrogen cannot hope to match the speed at which the planet is now heating up. The Nanoprinter can solve this problem, cutting down the time it takes to synthesise nanoparticles from years to days or even hours and by vastly reducing the iridium required for electrolysis, making hydrogen production much cheaper.”
The current chemical process for the production of electro-catalytic membranes cannot possibly achieve the same speed and cost-reduction.
Aaike compares chemistry to making tomato soup: “Every ingredient needs to be precisely measured and added at the perfect time to achieve the right result. Even a slight deviation will disrupt the synthesis. And because we are working with such tiny particles, the margin for error is considerable. Creating the perfect nanoparticle can realistically take months.”
But the Nanoprinter automates this process. “Consistent results can be achieved within a matter of hours at the push of a button”, says Aaike. “Everyone could use it, making life easier for researchers and significantly accelerating sustainable developments.”
Much less iridium
The Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER), on TU Eindhoven campus, supplied knowledge and pilot testing for this innovation. The results proved astonishing.
Michail Tsampas, research team lead at DIFFER, says: “We considered it almost impossible to reduce the amount of iridium required to produce hydrogen.”
For his research, Michail looked for alternative ways to create materials, which was how he got in touch with Aaike. He explains: “After some testing, we realised that VSPARTICLE’s technology required significantly less iridium to achieve the same results. This reduction is vital for hydrogen to actually penetrate the market. The iridium currently required means commercial use of hydrogen could never be cost-effective.”
“VSPARTICLE’s technology requires significantly less iridium to achieve the same results. This reduction is vital for hydrogen to penetrate the market.”
– Michail Tsampas, research team lead DIFFER
No waste streams
The fact that producing electro-catalytic membranes requires no chemicals whatsoever is, to Michail, another great plus for the technology.
“The Nanoprinter works entirely on electrodes amplified by wind power”, explains Aaike. “This means the membranes can be created without producing harmful waste streams.”
Michail agrees: “VSPARTICLE can actually reduce the carbon footprint of hydrogen production. And as the process is completely automatic, it is many times faster than any current method. The steps required for catalysation are now brought down to a simple push of a button.”
Fieldlab Industrial Electrification in Rotterdam (FLIE) is also involved in the pilot project. The field lab was founded by Deltalinqs, Port of Rotterdam, InnovationQuarter, FME and TNO. The Energy & Climate innovation programme allowed both parties to further research the Nanoprinter’s applications.
Jeroen Eblé, business developer at FLIE and InnovationQuarter, considers it a natural match: “We enhance each other in our common goal to expedite the market penetration of innovations and boost promising solutions from ambitious companies.”
FLIE achieves this by offering access to its network and its soon-to-be-completed laboratory where innovative companies like VSPARTICLE can properly test their technology.
“FLIE gives us the opportunity to run in vivo tests that show the stability and sturdiness of the Nanoprinter within an industrial setting.”
– Aaike van Vugt, CEO VSPARTICLE
Testing in an industrial setting
VSPARTICLE could play an important role in the new FLIE lab. “The Nanoprinter shows great promise when it comes to testing innovations”, says Jeroen. “Particularly in terms of the reduced cost and the increased efficiency of water and CO2 electrolysis. And the printer’s technological potential doesn’t end there.”
At the same time, the field lab is helping Aaike accelerate the commercialisation of his innovation. He says: “Without FLIE, we would plateau at pilot projects. FLIE gives us the opportunity to run in vivo tests that show the stability and sturdiness of the Nanoprinter within an industrial setting, shortening our pathway to the market.”
VSPARTICLE’s business model focuses on selling production and processing tools, with serialisation underway, aligning well with the goal to promote sustainable innovation. The Delft-based company has sold 33 such tools to date. Customers range from technical universities and research institutions to industrial businesses that work on electrocatalysts and other applications. Aaike expects to add many chemical companies to his start-up’s portfolio in the future, making their processes more sustainable, swift and simplified.
An ecosystem unique to the region
To ready the technology for mass production, Aaike and his colleagues are currently sourcing new investments and grants from the Energy & Climate innovation programme, for example. Aaike is also looking for other meaningful partnerships:
“A consortium would allow for a faster and more structured scale-up. We are therefore looking to work together with every technical university in the Netherlands, with research institutions and the regional manufacturing industry. This is how we can best utilise the unique technological ecosystem of South Holland, reshaping the future of chemical industrial processes together.”
The next ASML
A successful scale-up and commercialisation would constitute a significant boost for businesses in the Netherlands. Aaike explains: “The opportunities provided will allow regional manufacturers to forge new pathways and many other sectors will benefit from the countless applications this technology offers.”
He compares the innovation’s impact to that of tech giant ASML, the Dutch manufacturer of chip-producing systems, saying that the technology can be incredibly meaningful in our daily lives. There is still some way to go, however, as pilot projects are required for proof of concept in different contexts.
DIFFER’s Michail Tsampas is optimistic: “Scaling up is always challenging, but with the results and stability that VSPARTICLE has shown in the first iteration, I am sure it will be successful.”