This Startup Just Launched With A New Way to Turn Seawater into Hydrogen

February 16, 2016, 4:51 PM UTC

Powertrain technology: Winner

Fuel cells Long the subject of overpromising and under-delivering (anybody remember GM's vow to get a marketable car on the road by 2010?), fuel cells are fashionable again. GM and Honda announced they're teaming up to develop a fuel-cell system for mass-market cars by 2020. The presence of Honda, a steadfast supporter of fuel cells that has continued to work on their development, adds credibility to the partnership. In a nod to needed infrastructure investment, the two companies also pledged to work together on storage technologies for the hydrogen needed to power fuel cells. An interested observer will be Toyota, which recently confirmed it will put a fuel cell car on the road in 2014.
Courtesy: Ford

People don’t really talk about the “hydrogen economy” like they did a decade ago. It’s a dream to use hydrogen to power vehicles, and generate electricity in a cleaner and more convenient way than tapping oil for cars or coal for power.

But if one new, ambitious startup gets its way—and proves its technology works—hydrogen as a power source could have another shot at generating excitement and making big money.

The company is called Joi Scientific, and on Tuesday the team is talking about its idea and funding for the first time. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the company has developed technology that can turn sea water into hydrogen, using a technique that Joi Scientific CEO and founder Traver Kennedy describes as a process which “happens in nature.”

Kennedy, who has a background in information technology and was formerly the chief strategist at Citrix (CTXS), wouldn’t disclose any details about the process that the company uses to make the hydrogen. But Kennedy said the tech could create hydrogen “on demand,” where and when a customer would want it.

For example, a boat that was using hydrogen for a power source could use the Joi Scientific tech to create hydrogen from the surrounding sea water when needed throughout the journey. Kennedy, who says he’s been working on the idea in various iterations for about 11 years, says “we think this holds the potential to make hydrogen the fuel of the future.”

Much of the hydrogen produced today is created by taking natural gas and adding water steam to it at a very high temperature and in the presence of a catalyst. That process is called steam reformation of natural gas.

Another way to make hydrogen is by taking water and splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen by applying a direct current to it. Devices that do that are called electrolysers.

However both of these methods can be costly and energy intensive. Joi Scientific’s backers say the company’s process is more competitive.

These are the economics behind clean energy:

After years of prototyping the tech, Kennedy now has the first bit of funding to help Joi Scientific get closer to commercializing the idea. The company has raised a Series A funding round of $5 million, led by the Woodman Family Trust, and the firm’s veteran investor Dean Woodman, the father of GoPro (GPRO) founder and CEO Nick Woodman.

Woodman, who provided the seed financing for his son’s video company, tells Fortune that he first heard about Joi Scientific through friends and started looking into the technology after he moved to Florida three years ago. Woodman had a friend who had a nuclear power background investigate the tech, and that friend gave Woodman the thumbs up on making the investment.

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Joi Scientific plans to license the technology to companies that can incorporate it into their gear to make hydrogen to power fuel cells, burners, and boilers. Kennedy says about a year ago the company started discussion with some large manufacturers that are interested in the tech.

Kennedy says he expects that Joi Scientific will install its first technology in test projects this year, followed by larger commercial installations next year. “2016 is turning point for us, and 2017 is where we will be able to start to scale up our solution,” said Kennedy.

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