Wastewater to Hydrogen! – Sydney engineering graduates transform innovation to a Start-up


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Hydrogen is the most common chemical in the universe. It can be produced as a gas or liquid, or make up the composition of other materials, and has many uses such as, a fuel for transportation, heating, an electricity storage medium, or a raw material in industrial processes.

When it is produced using renewable energy or processes, hydrogen becomes a way of storing renewable energy for on-demand use. Hydrogen energy can be stored as a gas and even blended with existing natural gas infrastructure up to 15%. When converted to a liquid or another suitable material, hydrogen can also be transported via trucks and ships. This means hydrogen can also be exported overseas, effectively making it a tradable energy commodity.

Like the rest of the world, the main use of hydrogen in Australia is as a raw material for industrial processes but renewable hydrogen use in Australia would help us to reduce emissions in those high-temperature industries as well as transport applications.

Similarly, wastewater from many industries can also be converted into renewable energy.

A team of three former chemical engineering students from the University of New South Wales: Khushal Polepalle, Constantine Tsounis, Bijil Subhash have been working on an innovative idea to convert wastewater into Hydrogen. This team of trio called switcH2 has identified several opportunities to commercialise their idea through a start-up venture.

According to switchH2 founders, Hydrogen is an incredibly versatile fuel, with enormous potential to disrupt the fossil fuel market as the energy market is now starting to see full potential of Hydrogen as a clean burning fuel.”

SwitcH2 is currently in Startmate’s start-up accelerator, which has received backing from Mike Cannon-Brooke’s Grok Ventures and Blackbird ventures. The team was selected out of a pool of 300+ start-ups across Australia and New Zealand.

The start-up is targeting breweries as they present the low hanging fruit for on-site hydrogen production and utilisation, due to their high volume of wastewater production and their current energy demands.

The Indian Telegraph spoke to Khushal Polepalle, co- founder of swicH2 team on this exciting invention and start-up mission for many applications.

1: How did you and your team identify this project as a start-up initiative? What was the trigger moment?

switcH2 has 3 co-founders (Constantine Tsounis, Bijil Subhash & me) and we all graduated from Chemical Engineering together last year. This idea was conceptualised in our final year of engineering when we were doing a capstone project for Toohey’s (Australia’s largest brewery). As engineering consultants, we had to identify ways to extract value from their waste and assist them in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. For the purposes of the project we were told to assume if there is literature to support our ideas, we could develop it into an integrated solution. We decided to design a process that converts wastewater into hydrogen via fermentation. We did incredibly well in that project and shortly after that project we graduated. After graduation Constantine and Bijil continued to do PhDs in the catalyst development for hydrogen production space and I started a role at Deloitte in the consulting space. After a year into their PhD, the two of them reached out to me saying they were able to design a catalyst, with the Particles and Catalysis Research Group, that could produce hydrogen from wastewater. This was a remarkable achievement by the team as traditional electrolysis of pure water has a higher energy demand, which is associated with the water purification step as well as the oxidation of water. We were able to bypass both those hurdles to potentially produce the cheapest hydrogen using electrolysis in the market.

The turning point for us to become a business was after we participated in UNSW’s premier entrepreneurship competition, the Peter Farrell Cup which we used as a validation step for us to understand whether our solution resonated with the start-up community. We ended up winning the competition in flying colours and received peak interest from the judges who were angel investors as well as industry leaders in the financial services. As a next step we were accepted into Startmate, Australia & New Zealand’s premier accelerator program for start-ups, which is funded by Blackbird Ventures (Australia’s 3rd largest Venture Capital) and Grok Ventures (Mike Cannon Brookes’ Venture Capital Fund). The journey till date has been extremely positive from customers, investors and members of the public as they’re able to align with our vision – To become the global leader in on-site hydrogen generation & utilisation for the FMCG industry.

2: what stage it is now and what are the plans for commercialisation?

We’re currently in the scale-up phase and have completed two milestones to date: lab-scale demonstration and 10x scale-up. Our next milestone is to implement a proof of concept unit at an existing brewery to offset their natural gas consumption by blending hydrogen. This is a ready for market solution that will give breweries access to a cheaper and cleaner heating fuel, putting them on a path to becoming circular economies, profitably.

3: can this project be applied for any other industrial wastewater streams?

Electrolysis systems are established technologies, but where our speciality lies is within the catalyst development and electrolyser design for wastewater processing. Currently we are focusing on one vertical, the brewery industry due to the high volume of wastewater produced and the large energy demands the processes have. However, we have synthesised multiple catalysts and we have a few more in the making that we can tailor to different industrial wastewater compositions in the FMCG industry.

There is a huge potential of applying the swichH2 to many industry categories using modern technologies.

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The Indian Telegraph congratulates the swicH2 team (Khushal Polepalle, Constantine Tsounis, Bijil Subhash) for their innovative efforts and hopes their ambition will become a commercial reality

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