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BoosterFebruary 1, 20244 min read

Bspkl's journey to transform hydrogen production

To combat the global climate challenge, we need innovative solutions to fill the gaps left by renewable energy sources.

Hydrogen may just be the vital tool we need. 

It can be used to store energy and smooth out electricity production from renewables. When the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing, hydrogen can step in as a reliable energy source.

 

Hydrogen can also play a crucial role in manufacturing fertilisers, powering long-haul trucks and even launching us into space. It could power us as we make the shift to net zero. There is a catch though. Even though hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, there is hardly any of it on Earth.

We have to make our own, which includes passing electricity through water and splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen atoms – a process known as electrolysis.

One of the critical components in hydrogen production is the proton-exchange membrane, which helps separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Coating that membrane with a catalyst – usually iridium or platinum, both also in very short supply on Earth - significantly speeds up how quickly hydrogen is made, making electrolysis more efficient and reducing the need for higher voltages.

 

Rising stars in green technology

Most hydrogen production is 'grey' – made from natural gas, a fossil fuel – and makes up 1.8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. But even if it were made wholly with renewable energy through electrolysis – ‘green’ hydrogen – there is another issue.

'Hydrogen has a really killer market problem,’ said Christina Houlihan, chief executive officer of Bspkl, a deep tech research start-up based in Lower Hutt. ‘Catalysts use a lot of value. They’re expensive components.’


Bspkl specialises in making those key catalyst-coated membranes. But the Bspkl team claims to do it using 25 times less catalyst than traditional ways.

It has rapidly gained recognition in the clean tech world. Only spun out of GNS Science, a Crown Research Institute, last year, Bspkl, led by Christina and Jérôme Leveneur, its chief technology officer, secured the PwC New Zealand breakthrough project award at the 2023 Kiwinet research commercialisation awards. It has also recently been named as one of the top 50 clean tech companies to watch globally by the Clean Tech Group. 

 

Scaling up for a sustainable future

At GNS Science, Jérôme was initially conducting research on a small scale. However, he soon realised that the groundbreaking work he was doing needed to be scaled up to have a significant impact on businesses and the world. ‘Jérôme was talking to New Zealand companies and was able to do things at a centimetre by centimetre scale and produce really cool results,’ said Christina.

‘[B]ut then they would turn around and go “Cool, so we need to do that on thousands of metres squared.” So, Jérôme realised that the work he was doing… couldn’t scale to a size that was relevant for businesses.’


Scaling up bespoke research techniques to industrial proportions is no small feat – but it could mark a breakthrough in sustainable hydrogen production.

‘That led Jérôme on an almost ten-year journey. At GNS, there are about four or five different prototypes… And now we’re about how we bring that product to market.’


But Bspkl isn’t just focusing on its existing process. It’s continuing deep research, highlighting its commitment to driving change.

‘There’s also an emerging technology called anion exchange membranes. We’re going to be developing catalyst-coated membranes for that… All based off our same novel manufacturing technique,’ said Christina.


Bspkl believes that cheaper and more sustainable hydrogen production can play a significant role in addressing climate change.

‘In 2022, [the world] used 95 million tons of hydrogen. 60% of that was used to produce fertiliser,’ said Christina.

‘Today’s use is responsible for 2% of carbon emissions. So before we get on to cars, planes, trains and trucks, there are still 2% of the world’s emissions that come from hydrogen.’

 

A Kiwi company with global aspirations

Fulfilling that ambition isn’t easy. It requires a lot of capital – money – and that’s where Booster comes in, investing with other NZ investors. And the result could mean big things for New Zealand as well as the world.

‘Bspkl is a New Zealand company and we want to remain connected to our roots here,’ said Christina. ‘One of our values is to give back to the community that enabled Jérôme and me to establish Bspkl. Having New Zealand investors means that when we succeed, that value can be re-invested into other Kiwi deep tech start-ups to continue to grow our community.’

That support allows Bspkle to continue working in New Zealand and being at the forefront of an emerging, international industry.

‘Bspkl is one of those ones where I see it on the first wave of change in a growing industry in a way that people haven’t seen before. So, it’s not about disrupting an existing industry. It’s on the first wave of a new one.’

 

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Booster Investment Management Limited is the issuer of the Booster Innovation Scheme, Booster Innovation Fund (Fund). The Fund’s Product Disclosure Statements are available at www.booster.co.nz or by contacting your financial adviser.

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