Kristina Hugar, Ph.D. ‘15, Ecolectro’s chief science officer, conducts research in the startup’s laboratory space at Cornell’s McGovern Center.

Ecolectro receives $1.7M from DOE to accelerate hydrogen fuel development

A Cornell startup is working toward a day when harmful carbon dioxide in automobile exhaust vanishes into thin air – for good.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has granted $1.7 million to Ecolectro to accelerate production of hydrogen – a green fuel of the future. Ecolectro is based at the McGovern Family Center for Venture Development, a Cornell business incubator.

Hydrogen fuel is costly to produce because it requires the use of platinum, an expensive precious metal. The grant by the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy will support continued development of Ecolectro’s alkaline exchange membrane materials, used in fuel cells (with hydrogen as a fuel) to power automobiles and electrolyzers that separate water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Gabriel Rodríguez-Calero, Ph.D. '14, pitches his startup business idea “Ecolectro” at the 76West clean energy competition in Stocking Hall in summer 2018. Now, the company has been awarded a $1.7 million grant by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

“Ecolectro will be able to develop high-performing materials that will compete on a commercial scale with current platinum-based technology. This grant provides the resources for technology development and proof-of-concept evaluation,” said Gabriel Rodríguez-Calero, M.S. ’12, Ph.D. ’14, Ecolectro CEO and co-founder.

As a fuel, hydrogen generates electricity to run vehicles, and the resulting exhaust is pure, clean water vapor. “Our company will be enabling clean ways of producing hydrogen today that will have an immediate impact on reducing carbon emissions. This grant is game-changing,” Rodríguez-Calero said.

The alkaline technology is simple, cost effective and well-suited to large-scale processing and production, said Rodríguez-Calero: “We will provide a simple and durable route to clean renewable electricity and hydrogen production.”

Ecolectro grew from collaborative research in the laboratories of Héctor D. Abruña, the Emile M. Chamot Professor of Chemistry, and Geoffrey W. Coates, the Tisch University Professor of Chemistry, both of whom serve as scientific advisers to the company. Both are fellows with Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

“Considering that we’re all facing climate change, we need to make this fuel a reality,” said Kristina Hugar, Ph.D. ’15, Ecolectro’s chief science officer. “But it’s not going to happen overnight. It will take hard work, thought processes and design.

“Our company is an enabling component,” she said, “and what we’re doing has the ability to just catapult this science from the laboratory into something that changes the world.”

Ecolectro will partner with Proton OnSite and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for this project. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority will sponsor part of the project; the work has also received support from the National Science Foundation.

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Jeff Tyson