Aussie start-up wants to produce hydrogen from brewery wastewater

A trio of friends who studied engineering together is seeking to unlock the potential of cheap hydrogen supplies with a new technology that can convert the wastewater produced in the beer-making process into renewable hydrogen.

The three-person team of former chemical engineering students from the University of New South Wales, the three friends conceived the idea of a system that uses wastewater as an input into the hydrogen production process in their final years of engineering studies.

The trio graduated together and have worked to convert the idea into a business opportunity, forming switcH2, and have already attracted the support of Startmate’s start-up accelerator, which has received backing from Mike Cannon-Brooke’s Grok Ventures.

Usually, hydrogen production using electrolysis requires water that is free of contamination. However, the switcH2 team have designed a process that uses a specialised catalyst that allows the electrolysis process to operate in contaminated wastewater.

Two of the founders of switcH2, Constantine Tsounis and Bijil Subhash are completing an engineering PhD at the UNSW and are working with the third co-founder, Khushal Polepalle, to progress the technology.

“As a young company, we’ve got a lot of ambition and a lot of energy to change the landscape of renewables adoption. We felt Startmate could match our ambition and our big-picture thinking—we have found the programme to be extremely valuable and a great propeller towards our goals,” co-founder Khushal Polepalle said.

Polepalle told RenewEconomy that the trio has successfully demonstrated the technology at small scale, including a “stress test” of the concept, and are now looking for partners to scale up the technology as with an eye to eventually commercialise the hydrogen production process at a large-scale.

“Hydrogen has enormous potential to completely disrupt our reliance on fossil fuels. Not only is it a zero-emission energy carrier, its applications are vast and varied. We’re just scraping the tip of the iceberg with its potential,” switcH2 co-founder Constantine Tsounis said.

“The issue up until recently has been how to create hydrogen in a way that is both cost-effective and CO2 minimising.”

“Even the nascent use of electrolysis to produce hydrogen has typically relied on pure water which, in Australia, presents a uniquely challenging problem because of water scarcity. By using wastewater instead, we’re opening up opportunities for increased overall profitability as well as sustainability in our target markets.” Tsounis added.

The start-up is targeting breweries as they present an ideal mix as a source of wastewater, but also because the hydrogen can be utilised within the beer making process as a source of heat and electricity.

Polepalle told RenewEconomy that the wastewater processing technology that switcH2 has developed is versatile and can work with any source of wastewater, but switcH2 believes there is a stronger business case to be found by pairing the technology with operations like breweries, distilleries or wineries which are high energy users and high wastewater producers.

The company believes that the deployment of a 5MW electrolyser within a brewery could be used in the treatment of up to four million litres of wastewater, producing enough hydrogen to save as much as $1.1 million (S$997,113.64) in electricity costs, and avoid up to 3,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

The company recognised that many breweries are already incorporating solar projects into their operations to reduce their carbon footprint, and the switcH2 technology would enable an increased level of utilisation of the electricity produced from rooftop solar systems.

Breweries like XXXX, CUB and Fosters have all made investments to install solar on their brewery operations in recent years.

The deployment of an electrolyser within a brewery also raises the prospect of excess hydrogen being supplied to third-parties.

“As the hydrogen economy starts to accelerate in Australia, breweries producing excess hydrogen, particularly the large ones, will be able to offload that hydrogen to other users. Additionally, the use of hydrogen as an energy carrier for heating and/or electricity will offset costs, enabling businesses to save,” Polepalle added.