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Versogen to see federal funds for hydrogen research

Katie Tabeling
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Versogen hydrogen membrane Yushan Yan

Versogen has been named one of a select few Delaware recipients for U.S. Department of Energy funding to continue the research and manufacturing of clean hydrogen. | PHOTO COURTESY OF VERSOGEN

NEWARK Versogen, a startup firm that is making strides in the production of clean hydrogen, is slated to receive a portion of $4.7 million as part of a regional effort to tap into a carbon-free fuel source.

The spin-off company was named as one of four Delaware institutions identified by the U.S. Department of Energy to receive significant federal funds to research, produce and distribute clean hydrogen.

Versogen has teamed up with the University of Delaware, University of California Berkeley, De Nora Technologies North America and the University of Oregon to produce a more durable and effective anion-exchange membrane. Versogen’s membranes are breaking ground as it can avoid the use of expensive materials like platinum-group metal catalysts. That would ultimately make clean hydrogen production cheaper for producers.

As part of the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub (MACH2), Delaware companies and institutions are now among a select few to compete against other stakeholders in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey to get a piece of a total of $750 million in federal funds that was announced last October. 

In March, the U.S. Department of Energy announced 52 projects that spanned 24 states. In that round, Delaware institutions and their partners were awarded a total of $60 million.

“Each entity is playing an integral part. We can’t expect UD or other universities to go and build devices in the 1 kilowatt to 1 megawatt scale. Versogen is set up to do that scale, and we definitely want to take that fundamental technology, prove that it works and then increase the power level,” Versogen Chief Technology Officer Balsu Lakshmanan said.

Versogen, which grew out of the research by UD professor Yushan Yan and now operates out of the FMC Stine Research Center in Newark, has been one of the trailblazers in the state when it comes to reaching the so-called hydrogen shot. The Biden Administration has set a goal of lowering clean hydrogen cost by 80% to $1 per 1 kilogram in one decade.

Membranes are used to efficiently split water molecules through electrolysis, and Versogen’s work in perfecting its  polymer membrane that uses nickel or silver has put it well ahead of its own timeline to commercialize it. The firm also received a $3.4 million U.S. Department of Energy research grant, as well as $14 million in Series A fundraising last year.

Lakshmanan noted that while the education institutions bring in the “beautiful fundamental understanding,” Versogen brings the expertise to turn that research into reality through testing. 

“There’s two things you can change: the solids in the metal in the electrons or the polymer. Any changes made by the payment will be done by UD, and any changes to the metal will be done by De Nora. We have to match it and make sure it has the intended outcome,” Lakshmanan said.

Versogen has added 25 jobs in the last two years, with about half holding advanced degrees. The company has also been scaling up the technology to build membranes as well as investing in electrolyzer units. The goal is to build and test a one megawatt stack within a year, roughly the size of a kitchen dishwasher.

“Imagine that first of all electricity used by a neighborhood of 200 homes and just wishing it all to a dishwasher,” he said with a laugh. “Where we are right now is a 10 kilowatt stack, so it’s a 100% increase in power. It comes through with careful engineering.”

Versogen has spent the last few months finalizing a proposal and negotiating with the U.S. Department of Energy. Once the contract is signed by the UC Berkeley, Versogen will sign its own sub contract, ensuring that all parties understand their role in the project.

Lakshmanan said he was excited at work moving ahead for the MACH2, as it was bringing together heavy-hitters across research and manufacturing to lift up the Delaware region as a potential job hub for renewable energy. 

Chemours, which is not participating in the coalition of Delaware institutions in MACH2, is set to receive a portion of $50 million to research and manufacture fuel cells for engines. Chemours work in Nafion, an ion exchange membrane that the company inherited from DuPont, has already proven it has the in-house expertise and capability to make membranes on a larger scale. 

“DuPont has been a pioneer in proton exchange membrane, and we’re the leading company for anion-exchange membrane. Not only has Versogen come up with the idea and aided the technology, we have scaled up the cell,” he said. “When you put these two entities together, we can make Delaware the world capital for membranes. No other geographic entity has that skill set and knowledge base.”

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