Green Hydrogen Innovator Molten Industries Secures $2 Million Funding Round
Like the Silicon Valley legends of yore, Molten got their start in a garage next to Stanford. Except instead of the Apple I, Kevin and Caleb were building white-hot reactors to decompose natural gas into its atomic elements – hydrogen and carbon. They did this to decarbonize the four pillars of modern civilization: ammonia, plastics, steel, and concrete, which combined account for 20% of the world's energy consumption and 25% of global CO2 emissions. In their backyard and in their spare time in 2021, they developed next-generation methane pyrolysis technology that can utilize the United States’ existing natural gas infrastructure and resources to produce carbon-neutral hydrogen at cost parity with existing steam methane reforming for “gray hydrogen” (less than $1.50/kg). Rather than using steam to reform natural gas or methane to produce H2 and CO2, they use renewable electricity to split methane into atoms, producing solid carbon and gaseous hydrogen. This solid carbon can be easily sequestered or sold as a valuable product, thus eliminating gaseous CO2 emissions.
When most people think of hydrogen (H2), they think of a futuristic fuel that could replace gasoline or diesel to power cars and trucks. But hydrogen’s practical applications go far beyond clean fuels. Today’s $100B global hydrogen market (roughly twice the size of the current Li-ion battery market), is primarily based on using hydrogen as a chemical ingredient for fertilizer to feed 8 billion people and things like gasoline and plastics.
Unfortunately, the current way we make nearly 100 million tons of H2 per year is with a process called steam methane reforming (SMR) which produces approximately 10 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per ton of H2. This equates to around 1 billion tons of CO2 emissions each year, roughly equivalent to Japan’s total emissions.
Developing a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative method to produce hydrogen has the potential to not only decarbonize the way we make fertilizer and plastics, but also could cut emissions from other heavy industrial sectors such as cement, steel, aviation, and long-haul shipping, which represent altogether as much as 30% of global CO2 emissions.
Molten’s co-founders, Dr. Kevin Bush and Dr. Caleb Boyd, met doing their PhDs at Stanford on high-efficiency perovskite solar cells aimed to accelerate the transition to renewables. Before then, Kevin also built and tested an award-winning rocket engine in undergrad. Both led a team at Stanford that developed record efficiency perovskite-silicon tandem solar cells. Kevin went on to found a company called Swift Solar with solar scientists from Oxford, Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Washington. Caleb went on to work in venture capital in Germany at UVC Partners with a focus in climate tech.
But they became increasingly concerned that there were not enough solutions being developed to decarbonize the four pillars of modern civilization and kept getting drawn to clean hydrogen as a unifying solution. Dr. Bush believes, “urgency to address climate change requires us to develop and deploy technologies that are compatible with existing infrastructure and allow us to take advantage of a highly skilled workforce ready to tackle the challenge of a sustainable transition. We see an opportunity to engage with an entire segment of the global workforce to utilize their strengths in conjunction with renewables and batteries to help power the fourth industrial revolution - the grand re-building of a net-zero economy.”
That’s how they got their start tinkering in their backyard garage. They explored ideas from isothermal compressed air energy storage, to electrochemical direct air capture, to giant earth screws for energy storage, to a fleet of autonomous balloons to collect methane leaks from taliks in the melting Arctic permafrost (someone should do this!). The name Molten Industries was originally chosen because they were making a liquid phase of cement. None of the ideas stuck because they all seemed too expensive, too far off to make a dent, or didn’t make sense as a business.
The concept of methane pyrolysis to produce hydrogen and solid carbon has been known since the early 1900’s. If you heat up methane above 1000℃ it will thermally decompose into hydrogen and carbon, but humanity has struggled to make a high throughput reactor that does not clog with the solid carbon product. Caleb and Kevin started tinkering and building furnaces in a garage at Stanford with the blessing of two incredibly generous and lenient landlords. They built several prototypes of reactors hot enough to melt steel powered by an EV charger to test out key hypotheses on how to prevent the problematic clogging problem. And in August of 2021, their prototypes began to work. In a tiny garage, they had achieved what others had been trying for years. Stanford Professor Arun Majumdar, the Dean of the new Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, says that they have “cracked methane cracking.” They immediately left behind what were then their dream jobs to pursue their crazy vision for industrial decarbonization.
A year later, the vision has begun to materialize. Bush and Boyd were able to recruit an advisory board with expertise from industry, academia, finance, and project development in the energy and clean-tech world, including Professor Majumdar, Jane Woodward (Founder of WovenEarth Ventures and MAP Energy), Dr. Sean Hunt (Founder of Solugen), and Richard Kauffman (Chair of Generate Capital and NYSERDA). Venture capital funds Union Square Ventures and Fifty Years joined to co-lead the team’s first funding round in late 2021, which has been kept under wraps until now, along with UVC Partners and J4 Ventures. Partner Alex Teng of Fifty Years says, “Once you meet Kevin and Caleb, you'll understand not only why this is one of the few ways to achieve $<1/kg at scale, but that this is the team that will do it. Between them, they've built a rocket engine, set world records for solar panel efficiency, and invented a new, scalable approach to hydrogen production in their spare time. I can only imagine what they'll do working fulltime on Molten.” The team was also just selected by Bill Gates’ climate tech incubator program, Breakthrough Energy Fellows, as part of their 2022 cohort, providing substantial funding to take the garage prototype to commercial reality over the next two years. The team is hiring engineers and building out a new facility in Oakland, California to scale up their technology.
The recently signed Inflation Reduction Act adds to the tailwinds that are boosting the startup. The $3/kg hydrogen tax credit and additional boosts to renewable electricity production puts their technology as economically favorable in many industry segments. Co-founder Caleb Boyd says, “Joe Biden just ignited the afterburners. Overnight, clean hydrogen became the most cost-effective option for industries across the U.S. producing things like steel, plastics, aviation fuel, and fertilizer.”
About Molten Industries
To learn more about Molten Industries’ breakthrough technology, explore opportunities to join our growing team, and jump-start the decarbonization of your existing industrial processes and chemicals, visit www.moltenindustries.com.
About UVC Partners
UVC Partners is a Munich- and Berlin-based early-stage venture capital firm that invests in European tech startups from pre-seed to series A. With more than €350m under management, the fund typically invests between €0.5m - 10m initially and up to €30m in total per company. With more than 100 industry partners in the network and a close cooperation with UnternehmerTUM, Europe’s leading innovation center, UVC Partners offers startups unique access to talent, industry contacts, and other financial partners.