Asemblon Raises $2.9M To Make Hydrogen Fuel Cheaper Than Gas

4/22/09Follow @xconomy

[[Update with Buddy Ratner comment, 7 am Pacific]] Asemblon, a Redmond, WA-based developer of technology for storing hydrogen fuel, has raised $2.9 million in the first installment of a Series C financing round, Xconomy has learned.

The investment is being led by RAB Capital, a London-based hedge fund, and Sojitz Trading of Japan, says Asemblon CEO Pat Quarles. Asemblon’s goal is to raise a total of $6.5 million in this round, he says. The company has now raised about $11 million since it was founded in 2005.

“This will enable us to get a full pilot scale facility up and running for our technology,” Quarles says.

Hydrogen as fuel has long been a dream of researchers because of its abundance in nature, and its ability to be turned into a clean, renewable fuel. But it has long been plagued by huge infrastructure investments needed for high-pressure tanks, new filling stations, and costly transportation in a cold, liquid form. Asemblon doesn’t plan to make any of those huge investments itself, but rather it has patented technology for a family of organic carrier molecules that can release hydrogen on demand. The technology, called Hydrnol, is supposed to make hydrogen practical by enabling it to be stored at room temperature, and without high pressure, so people could carry it around in containers or ship it on pipelines or trucks like gasoline.

Asemblon, which has about 30 employees, plans to use the money to build a pilot-scale facility in Minot, ND, which will allow the firm to produce about 10,000 gallons a day of Hydrnol, Quarles says. The company isn’t planning to add staff at the moment, although it expects to grow with additional financing, he says. The company is planning to move offices to Bellevue, WA, in the next 90 days, he says.

UW bioengineering professor Buddy Ratneris the head of the company’s scientific advisory board, although the technology for Hydrnol was developed in-house, not at the university, Quarles says. The company also has collaborations with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State University, Washington State University, and Virginia Tech.

The underlying nanotechnology that makes this possible involves something called self-assembling monolayers, which, frankly, is technical stuff I don’t understand very well. The company’s insights hinge on surface chemistry down to the 2 to 6 nanometer range, Quarles says, that the founders thought might be applied to a number of different applications, like capturing individual cells for analysis in a sample, or making catheters in hospitals that would secrete an antibiotic and prevent infections from getting established, Quarles says.

Asemblon has its eye on forming partnerships with all sorts of industrial companies that can generate hydrogen from oil, coal, natural gas, wind, hydropower, solar, and nuclear sources, Quarles says.

“Everybody can make it,” Quarles says. “Storing it and transporting it is the problem.”

The way Asemblon hopes to make money is by striking deals with partners who invest in infrastructure to mass-produce hydrogen fuel, license its technology for storage and handling to them, and collect a royalty on their sales of each gallon of fuel, Quarles says. Some initial applications might be for fueling heavy-duty diesel customers, like buses, locomotives, and ships, Quarles says. Hydrnol ought to be cheap enough to make that hydrogen fuel competitive with oil at $35 a barrel, meaning it could be both cheaper and more efficient, he says.

Quarles, who told me he’s a septuagenarian but feels like he’s 25, assured me that he knows what’s doing and has been around the block in his business career at General Electric, Pfizer, Searle, and Squibb. He says he knows better than to go to industrial giants and try to get them to switch from what they’re doing now to a cleaner, greener fuel like recyclable hydrogen. He insists it will not threaten their bread-and-butter business. “We’re not trying to change how everyone makes their money today,” Quarles says. “We’re giving them an opportunity to make more.”The interesting thing about Asemblon technology is how significantly (positively) it stacks up against other hydrogen fuel efforts.

[[Updated comment]]. I asked Ratner what’s special about the Asemblon technology, and how it stacks up to other hydrogen fuel efforts, and here’s what he had to say:

“The Asemblon technology allows you to fill a car with a liquid from a pump, go 300 miles, only emit water from the tailpipe, and then ship the “spent” fuel off to a “refinery” for recharging. The Asemblon fuel is never burned! The truck that fills the underground tank at the service station goes back empty, so it can easily take the spent liquid back to the refinery for reprocessing.

“The Asemblon technology can also be used with stationary power plants. Today’s power plants can’t be shut down for the night and they continue to produce electricity that must be grounded into the earth because there is no way to store it. Picture million gallon tanks of the Asemblon liquid. The excess energy produced at night when grid demand is low will make hydrogen that will recharge the Asemblon liquid. During the day, the Asemblon liquid could give off the stored hydrogen that then can be combusted for heat and energy.

The Asemblon technology is immediately compatible with today’s internal combustion engines. If fuel cells ever become a reality in cars, Asemblon technology will work with them too.

Compare this to other technologies our government is investing in:

Compressed hydrogen – a hydrogen bomb in the back of the car; a hugely heavy, thick gas canister in the car; a new infrastructure for the whole planet (multi-trillion investment) to deliver compressed hydrogen.

Cryogenic hydrogen — a hydrogen bomb in the back of the car; a hugely heavy and thick-walled cryogenic liquid canister in the car; a new infrastructure for the whole planet (multi-trillion investment) to deliver compressed hydrogen; the “gas” in your tank lasts just a week, even if you don’t drive.

Metal hydrides – a heavy substance to adsorb hydrogen; requires high pressure gaseous hydrogen to charge it (a new infrastructure for the whole planet); expensive; a byproduct of its manufacture is chlorine – the planet has no need for that much toxic chlorine.

Carbon nanotubes (a joke!) — expensive, low capacity for holding hydrogen; requires cryogenic temperatures to store hydrogen; a new infrastructure for the whole planet (multi-trillion investment) to deliver hydrogen to charge the nanotubes.

Edwin Drake, in Titusville, PA in 1858, figured that someday somebody might want oil. He got involved with the Titusville Rock Oil Company, that became Seneca Oil, and then Standard Oil (John D. Rockefeller). The modern energy industry of the world started in an unassuming setting in a small town in Pennsylvania. The next energy industry of the world may be starting in a small company in Redmond.”

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  • Rogie

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