For a very long time, humans created high levels of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels for energy, without realizing the future environmental impacts.
Well, now we know, and other forms of non-fossil-fuel forms of energy production, from wind to solar to hydrogen, are increasingly being used.
Still, we’re a long way from a world where we don’t contribute to high levels of environmental carbon dioxide — so what if we could take that carbon dioxide and convert it into something useful instead of letting it go out in the atmosphere?
It’s a viable technology, and Wilmington-based startup Lectrolyst is aiming to convert emission into everything, potentially, from ingredients in medicine to fuel.
The company was founded by Dr. Greg Hutchings and Dr. Feng Jiao in 2018. Hutchings originally planned to follow an academic career after graduating with a Ph.D. from the University of Delaware, where he first worked with Jiao, but a conversation with his former colleague changed that trajectory.
“I went to work at Yale University, doing post-doctoral work, still wanting to work on these grand challenges we have in our society, but on the academic track,” he told Technical.ly. “And then one day I was talking with Feng about a couple of things that he had been working on more recently and both of us saw a real clear business opportunity for what we eventually transformed into Lectrolyst.”
So Hutchings returned to Delaware, taking advantage of a postdoctoral fellowship program at UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship.
What the company does is “transform carbon emissions that no one wants into chemicals and fuels that we all need,” he said. Here’s the technical explainer:
“We focus in on an area in the fine chemical space where we can take advantage of some unique capabilities of our system, ” he said, which is “a tandem electro-chemical reactor where we do a two-step process of transforming carbon dioxide. That second step is very key for us because that’s where a lot of our idea lies. It’s also where we’re able to make not just those really high compounds like fuel, but things for the fine chemistry industry, like ingredients for pharmaceuticals and all sorts of different end products.”
Why focus on converting carbon dioxide rather than on eliminating the manmade production of it? Hutchings says some amount of CO2 production is inevitable, so his company is taking a different approach.
“There’s a lot of talk about ‘we should just stop using fossil fuels and start using wind energy and everything else,’” he said. “There are certain sectors like the chemical industry that, just the nature of what you’re producing, there is no way to avoid generating carbon dioxide at some point. And we know that we shouldn’t just emit that into the atmosphere, so an option for us is to capture it right at the point source and do something with it. I really focus on carbon utilization, turning it into another resource. Give it a new life.”
Since the Lectrolyst technology is electrically driven, he said, it links in with all of those modern electrical generation sources like wind and solar.
The company is currently working on further research and prototyping, supported by funding from the Department of Energy.
“One of the nice parts is that we already had a prototype when we founded the company,” Hutchings said. “It was something that was developed as part of research at the University of Delaware. But it was small — a little tiny one centimeter square thing that just demonstrated it can work. We took that data, formed the company, licensed the IP from the university and did further prototyping. Ultimately, as we talk to customers, what they really want to see, especially the larger chemical manufacturers, is demonstrated capability showing that we know exactly what the device is going to do and that it can scale easily.”
Another source of support has been the Delaware Innovation Space, where the startup was a participant in the most recent Science Inc. cohort.
“It was very helpful getting that mentorship and also to be around other founders,” Hutchings said. “It’s very easy to get lost in your own work.”
Looking forward, Hutchings said that they plan to take in customers in the fine chemical industry in the next couple of years while he and Jiao expand their team.
“Within that timeframe, we’re looking to continue to grow into compounds that are produced at larger and larger volume, but also lower and lower margin as we get better and better at doing it,” he said. “I ultimately think of it as like a server farm — racks and racks of computers, each one is doing something completely different from one another, and they can quickly switch back and forth. That’s the same general idea of what we want to accomplish with Lectrolyst.”
While it may seem like competition must be getting fierce in the environmental tech industry, Hutchings said there is no lack of green energy projects to tackle.
“There are other companies working in the green space and none of us are competing with each other at all, at least none of the ones from Science Inc., but also in the broader industry” he said. “There’s a huge need to address these problems on a grand scale and we need as many solutions coming to market as possible, because for every single thing that you look to decarbonize there needs to be some entrepreneur willing to put in the effort of development to decarbonize it.”
More than a few of those companies, he predicts, will be located in Delaware.
“Delaware has a huge, rich history with the traditional chemical industry, with companies like DuPont and Gore,” he said. “I see this as the development of the chemical industry 2.0. I think Delaware has the potential to become a really big hub for this kind of development and become the central area doing this kind of chemical development on the East Coast.”