Reduce the BS: This startup is changing cow manure into clean-burning hydrogen gas

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A Modern Electron company photo from 2021. The Bothell, Wash.-based startup has grown to about 50 employees. (Modern Electron Photo)

Seattle-area startup Modern Electron is teaming up with the Tulalip Tribes, a Western Washington dairy, and an environmental effort to test a new technology for producing clean energy.

This month the project received $769,360 from the state Clean Energy Fund as awarded by the Washington State Department of Commerce. The fund supports cutting-edge technologies that reduce carbon emissions that are warming the planet and driving the climate crisis.

Fourteen years ago, the Tulalip Tribes, Northwest Chinook Recovery and the Werkhoven Dairy joined forces to create Qualco Energy, an innovative partnership to keep cow manure out of salmon streams. They turn the waste into natural gas for generating electricity.

The pilot project with Modern Electron will make the effort even greener by taking the natural gas and converting it into hydrogen fuel and carbon that can be applied as fertilizer.

Tony Pan, Modern Electron CEO and co-founder. (LinkedIn Photo)

“When Modern Electron came to us we were intrigued by the idea of stripping the gas down to pure hydrogen. That’s the cleanest burning substance there is,” said Daryl Williams, Qualco president. “We’re trying to get the carbon out of the air and into the soil where it belongs.”

Qualco uses an anaerobic biodigester to process 60,000 gallons of manure and 24,000 gallons of food waste every day. The natural gas or methane that’s created is fuel for an energy-producing generator that sells the power to the local public utility in Snohomish County.

Modern Electron is building a pilot plant at the biodigester facility that will use a technology called methane pyrolysis to cleave the hydrogen from the carbon. It should be up and running by early 2023, said CEO Tony Pan.

The Bothell-based startup launched in 2015, spinning off from Intellectual Ventures, the innovation hub created by former Microsoft exec Nathan Myhrvold with support from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. In addition to the state grant, Modern Electron will spend some of its own capital on the Qualco project. The startup has raised $70 million in venture capital.

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Methane pyrolysis is a tricky technology. It takes a lot of energy to power the reaction and it’s difficult to do efficiently. But there is growing demand for hydrogen, which can be used in generators, engines and hydrogen fuel cells. In this case, the hydrogen will be used in the generator already operating at the Qualco site. When hydrogen is used as a fuel, its only emissions are water vapor.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratories is among the organizations also pursuing methane pyrolysis technology. The lab in March announced its progress in developing a pyrolysis process that generates carbon of high enough quality for manufacturing applications. The only currently operating commercial methane pyrolysis facility in the U.S. is a demonstration plant in Nebraska, according to PNNL.

Sample of the carbon charcoal created by Modern Electron’s methane pyrolysis. (Modern Electron Photo)

This is a new space for Modern Electron. The company’s initial focus has been on building converters that generate electricity from heat. The devices are paired with home furnaces and hot water tanks, capturing the appliances’ wasted heat and turning it into power.

That expertise has applications for this challenge, said Pan. “We became very familiar with how to build and engineer systems that reach the temperatures required to break the methane molecules into solid carbon and hydrogen.”

The Qualco project is Modern Electron’s first full-scale pilot of the technology. The startup will have additional hydrogen-production projects to announce in coming months, Pan said.

He’s hopeful that the approach should pencil out financially, in part because it can use natural gas infrastructure that’s already in place to move fuel around. It also creates the option of producing credits for greenhouse gas offsets for the carbon that is produced and put into the ground.

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Williams noted that there are other biodigesters around the country that could benefit from the strategy.

“We’re really looking forward to seeing how it works,” Williams said.

Here are the other projects that received a share of the $8.5 million in Clean Energy Fund grants:

  • BattGenie, Seattle: $300,000 for a battery storage system on a Native American-owned development.
  • City of Yakima: $1 million for a feasibility study for a new anaerobic digester for processing food waste.
  • Composite Recycling Technology Center, Port Angeles: $647,250 for technologies for wind-turbine blade recycling.
  • Darrington Wood Innovation Center, Darrington: $1.5 million for technology that turns biomass into timber and bioenergy feedstock.
  • Group14, Seattle: $426,858 for a demonstration of a silicon polymer solid state battery.
  • McKinstry Essention, Seattle: $755,000 for heat pump testing.
  • OCOchem, Tacoma: $1.5 million to develop portable green energy generators and produce hydrogen fuel for the Port of Tacoma.
  • Spokane Indian Housing Authority, Wellpinit: $884,245 for R&D for a microgrid serving the Tribe.
  • XFlow Energy, Seattle: $772,000 for R&D on boosting wind energy efficiencies.

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