Q&A with Dr. Kristina Hugar, Co-Founder & CEO

Aug 3, 2023 | Ecolectro in the News

Based in Ithaca, New York, Ecolectro was co-founded by Dr. Gabriel Rodríguez-Calero (CEO) and Dr. Kristina Hugar (Chief Science Officer). Born out of their research in the laboratories of Cornell’s Center for Alkaline-based Energy Systems, the team has developed a world-class anion exchange membrane and electrolyzer stack that has the potential to drive the cost of green hydrogen down to $1.35/kg by 2030. Most hydrogen produced today is made via steam-methane reforming (SMR), a mature production process in which methane from natural gas is heated with steam and a catalyst to produce hydrogen. However, this is a very carbon- and energy-intensive process. Therefore, by utilizing renewable energy, electrolysis has become a promising source of green hydrogen that results in only emitting water vapor.

We welcomed Ecolectro to the Toyota Ventures portfolio in March 2022, and recently sat down with Kristina to discuss her career path to date, the promise of green hydrogen, what differentiates Ecolectro’s technology from alternatives, and what’s next for the company.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and what makes you passionate about what you do?

I decided to become a scientist in college because I like solving puzzles and I discovered that chemistry is simply another language that can be used to unlock challenges — and seems to be a language that I am fluent in. Additionally, I’m passionate about wellbeing as a life guiding principle. This includes: mental, emotional and physical health for myself and other humans, but also the planet, animals, land, air and sea.

Finally, my career direction has been shaped by a desire to come up with creative, science-based solutions that allow humans to continue our amazing evolution and advancement as a species, while limiting the negative impact that we have on the planet. How can we power up — without powering everything else down? All these factors combined are how I became an entrepreneur and science leader working to provide alternatives to the fossil fuel industry and change the way we access and utilize energy.

How did your experience and work lead you to co-founding Ecolectro with Gabriel Rodríguez-Calero?

Gaby and I both completed our PhD degrees in the chemistry department at Cornell. Aside from the shared comradery in pursuing advanced degrees at a top research university, we also were a part of a Department of Energy sponsored program that brought together scientists and engineers in several departments to work on energy and climate related projects. When Gaby finished his PhD a year before I did, he knew that he wanted to start a company. As a result, he surveyed the projects at Cornell that had generated intellectual property and selected the project that I was working on as the one that he wanted to commercialize. When he asked me to join him, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embark on something that was so clearly aligned with my values, and also something I thought I had the courage and skills to make happen.

What role did Cornell and the Center for Alkaline-Based Energy Systems play in helping you and Gabriel commercialize your research?

Cornell, and the EFRCs (Department of Energy-sponsored Energy Frontier Research Centers) that it has housed, has done an exceptional job bringing together and fostering collaboration between a variety of experts that have a high standard for excellence. Gaby and I had a good amount of support from the Center for Life Science Ventures at Cornell in the early years of our company. It allowed us to set up a lab, build a team, and start proving out our concept. It would have been very difficult as an early-stage deep-tech startup to get it all going without that support.

While hydrogen already has a wide range of applications, what is the promise behind green hydrogen?

Green hydrogen has a few key attributes that work in conjunction and separately from each other:

  • It offers a pathway to hydrogen that is not dependent on a dwindling supply of fossil fuels. While there can be arguments as to how quickly they will deplete or when it will start to really impact the way we live our lives — fossil fuels take centuries to develop in nature and they will eventually be gone. There is also a socio-economic factor at play here, where the more advantaged will continue to have access to depleting resources, albeit at a higher cost. Green hydrogen offers a pathway to help mitigate the disparity.
  • Green hydrogen offers a way to decarbonize sectors that are hard to decarbonize. The current commercialized routes to hydrogen, from methane reforming, produce a large amount of greenhouse gasses. There are increasingly compelling solutions to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gasses from these processes, but a more efficient design and use of resources may be to prevent the formation in the first place.
  • Water electrolyzers that produce green hydrogen offer the possibility of decentralizing hydrogen production, storage, and reducing associated transportation costs. It’s a similar concept to eating from local farms, as compared to shipping produce across the country. The technology also has a greater potential to efficiently integrate with intermittent renewables, such as solar, wind and hydro.

In your experience, why has it been difficult to unlock the full potential of green hydrogen to date?

The path has been tortuous for sure. It’s natural that there is a lot of hesitation around changing a paradigm that so acutely affects how people live, such as utilities, energy productions and storage. It’s a risk-averse sector for good reason, people need to have confidence in the ability to take care of their businesses and their families all at the same time. What we are proposing is not an incremental change, but rather an enormous step change that can be quite daunting. It’s also hard to implement successfully as a step change, like how hybrid cars became very popular before electric vehicles.

Because it is so impactful, there is a demand for the technology to be perfected right out of the gate. Failures to do this have been met with a high degree of criticism that have resulted in a stronger bias against the technology. For example, imagine if we had thrown out the first computers because they were not powerful enough, small enough and cheap enough — it would have been a huge disservice. There is little room in this field for the natural course of process improvements that other technologies and industries are afforded.

How is Ecolectro’s approach to green hydrogen production different from others and why is the Ecolectro team uniquely positioned to address this need?

Ecolectro’s technology was born out of rigorous science. We humbly approach our work with the attitude of rapidly discovering all the things that we don’t know yet by learning from our failure points quickly and developing pathways forward that are reasonable and well thought out. We are remaining diligent when we consider all the components that go into Ecolectro’s machine that produces green hydrogen, and continue to innovate every step of the way. We prioritize making technical decisions that lead to significant improvements to the industry and deliverables to customers.

Image courtesy of Ecolectro

Can you talk a little bit more about how Ecolectro’s technology eliminates the need for rare metals found in today’s fuel cells and electrolyzers?

Ecolectro’s products operate in alkaline membrane-based units that challenge the acid-based systems (PEM) commercialized today. The PEM systems can only operate with platinum as one or both electrocatalysts. To achieve higher performance, iridium can be used in place of platinum at one electrode, but iridium is the rarest of all metals. Cheaper, more abundant, base metals fundamentally cannot be used in PEM water electrolyzers, due the acidic nature.

Ecolectro has developed an AEM chemical solution, both polymer membranes and electrode components, that are uniquely designed for high performance and stability with non-precious metals in alkaline media. The materials are comprised of non-fluorinated, aliphatic, hydrocarbons that are impervious to reactions with alkaline media and mechanically robust to withstand the temperature and pressures required in devices. Moreover, our proprietary cationic moieties are more inherently stable to degradation than the commonly used versions found in competing materials. Finally, our novel electrode components are formulated to boost the performance of non-precious metal catalysts, have high oxidative stability when a voltage is applied, and have ultimate compatibility with our matching membranes.

Congratulations on raising close to $5 million in your recent funding round! What do you hope to accomplish next?

Ecolectro is in a race to scale all stages of our technology as quickly as possible and to demonstrate electrolysis units containing our proprietary components at high-impact demonstration sites. Every person on our fast-growing team is dedicated to this mission in all aspects of technical and business development.

Where do you see green hydrogen production — and Ecolectro — in five years?

In five years, green hydrogen production will no longer have the mystery and questions surrounding it. It will not be a question of if we are doing green hydrogen, but more so a matter of how to implement it and integrate it in the best way possible. In five years, we will have commercialized pilot scale water electrolyzers containing Ecolectro’s products. We will have proven out the current round of the technical and business risks that we face today and be poised for the next set of challenges to scale and grow.

Read the full Medium article here!

Unleashing the Green Hydrogen Revolution