April 21, 2022 • Paul Rodden • Season: 2022 • Episode: SIS06
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Welcome to The Hydrogen Podcast!
Special Interview Series - THP06: Trevor Best / Syzygy Plasmonics - In today’s interview I want to highlight a company called Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. (siz-uh-jee). I was speaking on a hydrogen panel with their CEO Trevor Best and we started talking about their ability to use a process called photocatalysis to create hydrogen and I knew I had to get him on the podcast. To give you a brief overview… Syzygy (siz-uh-jee) develops chemical reactors that are both environmentally friendly and capable of disrupting the market. Invented at Rice University, their ‘Antenna-Reactor’ nanoparticle system turns traditional catalysts into high efficiency photocatalysts. It is capable of utilizing light to perform high volume chemical reactions at lower costs than are possible today. Syzygy will enter the market with a low-cost, low-emission Hydrogen production system. After a beachhead is established with Hydrogen, Syzygy will develop low-cost, low-emission production systems for other high value chemical reactions that create commodity chemicals such as Ethylene, Ammonia, and Methanol. The technology is amazing. The leadership team is amazing. This company is on my short list of one’s to watch for the future.
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Paul Rodden 0:00
Hi everyone, this is Paul Rodden. I want to welcome you back to the hydrogen podcast. In today's interview, I want to highlight a company called Syzygy Plasmonics. I was speaking on a hydrogen panel with their CEO Trevor Best. We started talking about their ability to use a process called Photo catalysis to create hydrogen, and I knew I had to get him on the podcast. To give you a brief overview Syzygy develops chemical reactors that are both environmentally friendly and capable of disrupting the market. It was invented at Rice University, their antenna reactor nanoparticle system turns traditional catalysts into high efficiency, photo catalysis. Trevor, you're gonna have to help me out on some of these words, it is capable of utilizing light to perform high volume chemical reactions at lower costs than are possible today. Syzygy will enter the market with a low cost low emission hydrogen production system after the beachhead is established with hydrogen. Syzygy will develop low cost low emission production systems for other high value chemical reactions that create commodity chemicals such as ethylene, ammonia, methanol. Guys, what Trevor and his team have created is remarkable, and has the potential to change the way we think about hydrogen. So I'm gonna stop talking queue up the theme song, and we'll dive right into the interview. So the big questions in the energy industry today are, how is hydrogen the primary driving force behind the evolution of energy? Where is capital being deployed for hydrogen projects globally? And where are the best investment opportunities for early adopters who recognize the importance of hydrogen? I will address the critical issues and give you the information you need to deploy capital. Those are the questions that will unlock the potential of hydrogen. And this podcast will give you the answers. My name is Paul Rodden, and welcome to the hydrogen podcast. Okay, today I am joined by Trevor Best, he's the CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics. Syzygy is a technology startup that is using a breakthrough in plasmonic science developed at Rice University to perform chemical reactions. This novel photocatalytic process allows them to perform reactions with high efficiency, productivity, selectivity and stability, over 1000 degrees lower temperature than traditional methods. Their go to market product is a small scale onsite hydrogen production unit that reduces capex by up to seven and a half times and the cost of hydrogen per kilogram by up to 10 times. Welcome, Trevor, great to have you on the podcast.
Trevor Best 2:30
Hey, very, very nice to be here, Paul. And so fantastic to to talk about hydrogen with you today. It was great being on the panel with you previously. And so would love to tell you and your listeners all about our amazing new technology.
Paul Rodden 2:46
And it is amazing. Please, can you first give us a little bit of background on you. What led you to Syzygy the company and how you specialize and make great things?
Trevor Best 2:57
Absolutely. So if you want to hear my story, it starts 36 years ago in Midland, Texas. And so I was born and raised in the oil patch in Midland, you know, decided to go to school at Texas Tech University. And after graduating from Texas Tech University with a triple major in business, I wanted to get out of the desert. So I went to China. China was amazing. I taught English there for a year, it was a bit too far out of the desert. So I came back to the United States and I got a job with Baker Hughes. I worked at Baker Hughes for a number of years. And very shortly after joining Baker, I moved to Houston, Texas. I've been in Houston for more than a decade now, in my career with Baker, I started off in project management then progressed into quality. I was Quality Manager for the Gulf of Mexico, which involves a lot of deep water equipment, which is r&d. And from there, I got involved in the quality of the r&d process at Baker Hughes Center for Technology Innovation. Baker's like family to me, but I was always very, very interested in the energy transition. And we didn't call it the energy transition back in, you know, 2014 and 2015. My co founder, Dr Suman Khatiwada. And I called it the green wave. And we both wanted to go surf the green wave, you know, the wave of green electricity and green processes that we saw on the horizon, we decided to strike out on our own. So my co founder, Dr. Khatiwada. And I went on a technology search, we found this amazing technology that we're going to talk about today, took it out of the university. We've been growing it ever since to the point where we're at now where we are just about to enter the market.
Paul Rodden 4:40
Oh man, that's awesome. So tell me a little bit about the company. How did you get how did you get started? And what made you pick what you picked?
Trevor Best 4:50
Yeah, so we actually started off with a process that we called TMI. It was technology, market and impact and so we assess different technologies based on these metrics, like, you know, where the technology was at from a readiness perspective, were the researchers associated with it like highly accredited, you know, the market, if we build something out of this, will people actually buy it? And impact? Like, if we do this, will it have some kind of positive impact on society? And in this case, like with fighting carbon emissions, definitely, definitely the case. So, yeah, we looked at dozens of different things eventually came that came to this, we applied a lot of knowledge we had gained in the r&d scale up process at Baker to evaluating this, and we really tried to break it, we tried to find some reason why this wouldn't work is very much like, you know, gladiator style, like, just try and kill it, if you can find a reason to kill the idea, then you shouldn't, like devote your life to it. And like, Man, this thing just would not die. It was like, really, you know, low cost to make, the numbers were far better than anything anyone had seen in history. In this field of science. All of the metrics that mattered for chemical engineering were like topping out higher than they are in traditional processes. And looking we can build it out of very low cost materials so that no cost numbers are coming back. Great. And it's like, dang, I guess, I guess we got to do this one. So we went all in on it in 2017. Raised money, you know, open doors for the first time in early 2018.
Paul Rodden 6:24
I do love your startup, how you came across this photo catalysis method. Can you explain, like the photo catalysis? And how I'm bumbling the phrasing and everything else, and how that SMR is different than the other SMR variants.
Trevor Best 6:42
Yeah, so what I'll do is I'll start with the big picture, about Syzygy and photo catalysis, and all of our science and then then I'll start to explain some of the nuance. So at the end of the day, the one thing that you should remember about synergy plasmonics technology is that we are an electrification pathway, we enable the electrification of chemical manufacturing, and we enable chemical reactions to happen being powered by renewable electricity instead of heat from combustion. And ultimately, this is how we reduce emissions by powering, you know, chemical processes with renewables instead of combustion. Now, how we do that is, we have the world's most stable and active photocatalysts. And we energize those photocatalysts photocatalysts, being a material that performs chemical reactions using light, instead of heat or electricity. We energize those photocatalyst using LED lights that can be powered from renewable electricity. And so in Syzygy, we've kind of got two branches of our science one is on the material, the photocatalytic itself that can use light instead of heat to perform chemical reactions. And it is truly phenomenal. It is the culmination of three decades of research out of Rice University. And the other side of that is the chamber that actually provides the light and energizes the catalyst. Both of those are completely new. The photocatalyst was a material science innovation. But no one had ever seen properties like this before. So no one had ever built a chamber that could make use of those properties. And like those are kind of the two things that the company is doing, you know, getting this material science innovation into the market and building a chamber that gives it the conditions and needs to operate.
Paul Rodden 8:31
It still kind of floors me,
Trevor Best 8:34
Yeah, you'd ask how are we different from SMR. And so going back to the big message, we're a platform, we can do many different chemical reactions. photocatalytic steam reforming is one of them. And if you were to compare this against the traditional method of doing steam reforming, that method is powered by combustion. So you're burning a lot of fuel to produce heat. And that heat is driving the steam reforming reaction to create hydrogen, or to create a sin gas that has very high hydrogen concentration. In our technology, you're providing that energy in the form of light, which we're generating with LEDs renewable electricity, so we eliminate that combustion and the associated emissions, but the chemical reaction that we're doing is fundamentally the same. And that's the same principle by which we do other reactions, as well just change the energy input from some form of combustion to you know, renewable electricity.
Paul Rodden 9:37
So then if by not having the combustion and using LED as your source, and I kind of mentioned it earlier, your energy utilization is way lower.
Trevor Best 9:47
Yes, to an extent. So you have to provide a certain amount of energy to a chemical reaction to make it happen. And so that's like a speed limit set by God there's no changing it to make the steam reforming reaction happen, you have to give it, you know, 206 kilojoules per mole, like, that's just doesn't matter what pathway you use, we are no different, we change the way that energy is delivered. And when you think about like a traditional thermal method, like you're burning a lot of fuel, you're heating up this entire giant chamber. And a lot of the heat energy can escape and get wasted. Ours, you know, our, like, our LEDs are very, very efficient. So we aren't losing much energy, turning electrons into photons. And with the way we've designed the reactor, we're basically, you know, directly beaming all that energy in the form of light to the catalyst bed. And we're not, you know, heating up this giant structure. So it's very, very focused, very, very targeted. And that's one of the ways that we can better utilize the energy we're putting in and reduce the amount of energy that is consumed because we're more efficient in our energy delivery system than traditional methods. Does that make sense?
Paul Rodden 11:10
Yeah, and I like to you're more targeted, more focused, you can target your energy more precisely, but shift just a little bit. And let's talk about what you had, you kind of mentioned it to talking about syn gas, the FT fuels, Fischer–Tropsch fuels, and utilizing co2 for that.
Trevor Best 11:28
Yes. And so as I mentioned, were platforms. So we can do a lot of different chemical reactions, we have a compendium of reactions that utilize co2 as a feedstock. And from co2, you can create syn gas from a number of different pathways. And then once you have syn gas, you can turn that syn gas into things like methanol, you can run it through Fischer–Tropsch to produce syn fuels. The reaction that we're most interested in right now is called dry reforming. And so this is actually co2 and methane, to syn gas. And so the world's most potent greenhouse gases, both of them, combining them together to make syn gas, and ultimately other things, it has the potential to be intensely carbon negative, depending on where you're getting your co2 and methane from. And we're really interested in this because the economics, methane, you know, is carrying a lot of hydrogen, it's generally lower costs than hydrogen. And so the economics of this reaction work out very, very well. And how we plan on applying it is by running this in parallel with our previous reaction that we're talking about steam reforming, to doing steam reforming to get hydrogen from methane, and then putting in a little bit more methane and combining that with the co2 to make methanol through our dry reforming process, calling it double reforming reform methane to get hydrogen reform co2 to get methanol. And what's really amazing is that when we do this, we're going to be able to do this in a way that prevents any emissions from going into the atmosphere. And so huge, yes, not only do you get great economics, you get phenomenally low carbon footprint.
Paul Rodden 13:11
And also, you know, one of the things that I think is worth talking about too, is the size of your units. These aren't, these aren't big things we're talking about. These are they're pretty small, and able to produce a lot.
Trevor Best 13:27
Yeah, so one of the hallmarks of our science photo catalysis part, I just offhandedly threw this out earlier that it, it came in really high on all the chemical engineering metrics. Those things are like activity, which is like how much product a unit of catalyst can make, you know, stability, which is like how long does it last? You know, selectivity which is, you know, does it create other byproducts on the side that you don't want in our catalyst comes in very high on a lot of these metrics, specifically activity, we are 15 to 30 times higher than traditional thermal catalysts. And what that means is that you need just a fraction of the amount of catalyst to do the same amount of reaction Oh, that means our reactors very small compact, and you can process a whole lot of gas through them. How we plan on scaling up is numbering up. So we'll, you know, we're we're finalizing the footprint of our go to market product design. It'll be a chemical reactor that's about the size of a full grown man. And then you'd put multiple of them together to achieve the scale you want. For smaller distributed deployments, you just need a handful of them to do something like a refinery you need notably more probably, you know, hundreds. But if you think about how an SMR works today, they're already using reformer tubes and there are hundreds of those. Yeah, so it is remarkably similar to what they're doing. Today, just yeah, no no emissions from combustion.
Paul Rodden 15:04
And I do love the the scalability of your technology too dive. Let's dive a little bit into your economics. We've talked about that a little bit. How do your economics compare to other hydrogen operations?
Trevor Best 15:20
Yeah, so let's, let's break this down into kind of two sides. There's OPEX and CAPEX. Yeah, and this is a oversimplification, but it's a good way to think about it. So on the OPEX side, you've got the energy going into the system. This is like electricity, you know, methane. If we're splitting ammonia, which is another reaction we can do. It's ammonia, you know, but these are like your feedstocks and power sources that you have to pay to run the thing on the CAPEX side. This is all of the infrastructure that goes into installing and deploying the system. And we have notable benefits for both. So on the OPEX side, versus competing technologies, we use a very significantly lower amount of electricity than like an electrolyzer. So we will use about four to five times less electricity than an electrolyzer. And the reason for this is because we're doing different reactions, instead of getting hydrogen out of water, we're getting it out of like methane or ammonia. And it takes a whole lot less electricity to run those reactions. But when you compare us against like SMR, or pyrolysis or auto thermal reforming, we actually use notably less methane than those. And when you compare us against like ammonia splitting technologies, our ammonia splitting technology, because we aren't combusting ammonia to drive, the system will use like, you know, 30 plus percent less ammonia, then a thermal ammonia splitting technology. Now, when you think about the prices of all these things, the price of electricity can vary the price of you know, methane can vary, the price of ammonia can vary. So we do a lot of sensitivity analysis. And what we see is that our technology really powerful between like two and 10 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity, that's the main thing that matters is the cost of electricity between two and 10. Since is, is the range that we are super strong, and in international locations that are currently importing a lot of their energy like Japan or Korea, right, our ammonia splitting technology is very strong above like five cents per kilowatt hour. And we have these kinds of scenarios. We don't win everywhere. But we have these scenarios where we scoped out that based off the energy consumption, you know, we are very strong in that two to 10 cent range. On the capex side, we are able to build our reactors that have much different class of materials. So traditional thermal reactors are built out of like nickel and chrome and just very expensive things, we build our reactors out of things like aluminum and glass and plastic. And so when we talk about like no combustion, if you think about it, in a traditional reactor, they've got these flames that are 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, and where that like, you know, 1000 2000 degree Fahrenheit flame is in a traditional reactor, we're using 3d printed plastic. And so it's just like a completely different world, inside our reactor. And if you think about the cost between something that has to withstand a constant 2000 degree flame and the cost of 3d printing a piece of plastic, it's, you know, worlds apart. And so this is how we're able to reduce capex and we're seeing, you know, pretty significant reductions in CapEx for the reactor component. We're anticipating, you know, our recent numbers are showing like potential for 50 plus percent reduction versus competing technologies on the capex side.
Paul Rodden 18:59
That's incredible. And yeah, I mean, just there's, there's so much more upside when you consider all of your capital costs that you can put in and and drive down your entire unit sale or you know, unit price, versus these other guys that are having to do combustion and these massive $250 million blue hydrogen and a little bit we can talk about Blue Green and how much you and I hate the colors of hydrogen.
Trevor Best 19:29
I do I do absolutely talk about that. You got friended me anytime you want to get rid of colors.
Paul Rodden 19:38
So yeah, I guess let's let's let's talk about the hydrogen outlook and where you see things going and unless there's something else you want to talk about on your economics.
Trevor Best 19:50
I would love to talk about where we see hydrogen going. And I think that that's also a fantastic segue into the conversation on carbon intensity and you know, colors you know, Yeah. So what we're seeing now is that there's a lot of deployments around new technology to test things out in the market. And so I think for the next five years, the market is going to be figuring out what technologies work and where they work. I think that there has been a lot of hype in the marketplace around hydrogen. And I think some of it's warranted, but I don't know if all of it is warranted. And I think that some technology pathways might end up being more expensive than then was originally planned. Yeah. And so I think that there's going to be a lot of transition happening in and around hydrogen for the next decade, with different technologies being tried out, some really starting to get a foothold and others struggling to do so in I do think that different places on earth will end up adopting different technologies. Like, I'll give you an example, I can think of 10 places off the top of my head, where electrolysis works great, like good examples. Chile, Chile doesn't have great access to natural gas, they have, you know, phenomenal solar and wind, like electrolysis is gonna win in Chile, and coastline for their water. Yep, boom. So you go somewhere like Canada, and Canada does not have fantastic renewables profiles, they have, you know, very low cost natural gas, they have good formations to store co2, like methane based pathways are probably gonna win in Canada. And you can look at different areas of the world, I think carriers, you know, hydrogen carriers, like ammonia or others will probably win in Asia, because they're importing a lot of their energy now. And they're probably not going to be production centers, they're going to be consumption centers importing it in, and carriers are the best way to move hydrogen around. So there's going to be a lot of movement. I think that most technologies being worked on today are valid, I think that there's going to be significant deployments based around methane electrolysis, I think both SMR and autothermal, reforming have strong futures, I think up to the point that the carbon black market can handle it, I think that pyrolysis has a strong potential, especially for producing carbon black, more so for that than for hydrogen. And I think that our technology is going to carve out a very healthy chunk, right out the middle in, you know, those scenarios?
Paul Rodden 22:36
I think so. Yeah, go ahead. No, I was, I think so too, right now. And it was also in a discussion that I had earlier with the Green Party of Ireland, that there are a lot of these smaller tech companies looking into hydrogen now are really going to supplant some of the bigger operators in the future. And I see this technology as being one of them. That's just, that's what I think is coming down the pipe.
Trevor Best 23:05
Thank you. And I agree. I would like to, like make a note on carbon intensity, because I actually, when we talk about the future, everybody's talking about technology and pathways and all this. And I do think that it will play out in a lot of different ways in cost. But I see a very strong trend in colors, and carbon intensity that I see forming. And I think that it only plays out one way. And it's going to take a decade for this to play out. So right now everybody's talking about hydrogen in terms of colors. I really don't like it for Syzygy. Since all the listeners right now, I want you to just think right now, what color is photocatalytic hydrogen? Right, you know, and I've got four pathways that I can get to to hydrogen with my technology right now, using four different feedstocks. And so like color, is really not a great way to talk about these things, really not certain technologies get sidelined. It's very brand heavy, certain pathways get vilified and others get celebrated, you know, because they make people feel good, but not based off their merits of cost or carbon intensity. Right now, carbon intensity CI score, which carbon intensity score is a way that normalizes all pathways to how much emissions go into the atmosphere when you follow this pathway, and we see a whole lot more customers talking about it. We see government starting to talk about it. The hydrogen you know, chunk of the build back better act, right, calls out credits based off CI score and not color.
Paul Rodden 24:42
I was amazed by that, by the way when I first saw that they're actually looking at the carbon intensity level and not just of technology. Oh, a win.
Trevor Best 24:52
This is so juicy. Now let me tell you what what makes it really really interesting is You can with one pathway, a single pathway, you can get very, very different CI scores depending on if you use us regulation, or European regulation or International Panel on Climate Change guidelines. So there are very different ways to calculate that number. And believe it or not, the regulations are very lobbied. And so not all calculation schemas include all of the emissions. And depending on like, what method you use, some things that are called Green hydrogen today could look could be amazing, or could actually be worse than gray. Right. And without actually doing that assessment, you don't know which is which. So we're seeing this trend build on CI score, we're seeing a global understanding start to build around how to calculate it. And I think that over the next 10 years, this is going to evolve. And ultimately, we're going to have a CI score that is tied close to what is actually going into the environment. And the true, like what we would call like the environmental score, right in nature doesn't care what the regulation says you either put it into the atmosphere or you didn't, yeah, we're gonna see marrying of the environmental score and the regulatory stuff over the next 10 years, as this develops, and we're gonna see a transition away from colors to Ci score. And let me tell you, blue is blue can be really good, or it can be terrible. Green can be really good, or it can be terrible. Every pathway can be really good. Or it can be terrible, depending on like where you source your feedstock and right, you know, a number of other things. So seriously,
Paul Rodden 26:44
you take it to you just gonna let methane leak out of our pipes. Are we gonna make sure that they're constrained in this pipeline? Things like that.
Trevor Best 26:54
And we actually measure it.
Paul Rodden 26:56
Right? How novel would that be?
Trevor Best 26:58
Yeah. And so there's a there's a company that I follow project Canary?
Paul Rodden 27:03
Oh, yeah. Yeah, follow them. I think I've talked a couple of times in the podcast, about that group. I think they're doing some some amazing things.
Trevor Best 27:11
Yep. And so Anna Scott runs it. Project canary is like, basically, we will be constantly checking your pipeline for methane leaks. Yeah, and validating that you're got a low leak rate or something, it's combine that kind of stuff with with blue. And as soon you're talking about how I hate colors, and I'm calling about combining their with methane based pathways, I think can really help show that some of those pathways are good. Or if there are problems there, make sure they get fixed. And combining that kind of stuff with green pathways can show that some of them are the best, right, but some of them are truly awful and should be, should be left behind.
Paul Rodden 27:54
And yeah, it's, it's like I talk about all the time on the podcast, for the hydrogen revolution to really take off, right? It's, we can't just focus on one technology, we're not going to get enough energy out of electrolysis, or methane or anything else, bring everyone to the table, make as much as you can, however, you can, like you said, some regions are going to produce with different technology than others. Because just because they're set up that way, just just within the US, you know, if you got something in South Texas versus something in Appalachia, it's gonna be completely different. You know, we need to start focusing, like I always talk about, like you said, start focusing on that CI score, and really seeing what's beneficial and what's not just remove the fluff, remove the bickering between the blue people and the green people as to which one's better. Let's start working to really make this stuff viable. And I kind of leads me into this last question is, you know, why is this hydrogen revolution different than all the others? This is like, what the fifth one in the last 60 years? Why is this one gonna make it?
Trevor Best 29:03
Easy! So the difference now, from previously, has some to do with hydrogen and technology development, but it has everything to do with the energy market as a whole and macro trends. And why this one is different, because the world ready was truly make steps in energy transition, you know, in the 70s, or in the 90s. What is happening now, with the rise of solar and wind, which didn't really start until after 2010. You know, last decade was a landfall decade for renewables like they are here now, and they weren't here 10 years ago, and people are doubling and tripling down on that and you look at like what's coming in the future, all the investments going to renewables, and that infrastructure is needed. To make hydrogen happen, yep. And not only that, like, if you look at public awareness and public opinion, people are starting to make buying decisions, people are starting to make investing decisions based on ESG. This whole macro trend in the market is is pointing in a different place today than it has been at any point in the future. If humanity wants to truly tackle climate change, there is no way to do that without hydrogen. Now, exactly what's gonna happen, you know, any of y'all know, please tell me a lot of magic. Yeah, I have a lot of good ideas about what might happen. But the only thing I'm sure is that hydrogen will happen and there's gonna be a lot of different pathways. Exactly how much to each one. Yeah, that's the conversation best had over a beer?
Paul Rodden 30:52
Absolutely. And we're gonna have to do that. We can kind of wrap it up there. Thank you so much for talking with me today about this. I love your thoughts on the market. I love your technology. I love points that you made about the hydrogen future that we're looking at entering. Thanks again for talking with me today.
Trevor Best 31:12
Hey, thank you so much, Paul. It's been an absolute pleasure. And to anyone listening. You know, if you're curious about the hydrogen space, you're curious about syzygy technology, you know, please just reach out to us. You can find us online at https://plasmonics.tech. And feel free to reach out connect with me on LinkedIn, etc. We always love to make new friends.
Paul Rodden 31:32
Excellent. Trevor, thank you so much, man.
Trevor Best 31:35
Thank you so much, Paul.
Paul Rodden 31:36
Hey, this is Paul. I hope you liked this podcast. If you did and want to hear more, I'd appreciate it if you would either. Subscribe to this channel on YouTube, or connect with your favorite platform through my website at ww.thehydrogenpodcast.com. Thanks for listening. I very much appreciate it. Have a great day.