By Sharon Oosthoek

Ten years after coming up with materials to inexpensively produce hydrogen using membrane-based electrolysis, Steven Holdcroft’s discovery is paying off. The Simon Fraser University polymer/electrochemist and his team are the brains behind the technology that launched Ionomr Innovations. The Vancouver-based company makes proton- and anion-exchange membranes that can be used in fuel cells and to generate hydrogen through water electrolysis.

In January, Ionomr announced it had raised $15 million in a series A financing round led by Shell Ventures and Finindus, a Belgian investment firm linked to the steelmaker ArcelorMittal. Series A financing is an investment in a privately-held, start-up company after it has shown progress in building its business and demonstrated the potential to generate revenue.

“Decarbonization by the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions will involve hydrogen at ten times the scale we produce now,” says Holdcroft, Ionomr co-founder and advisor. “Ionomr is positioned to scale up its materials to very large volumes, which is what is going to be needed.”

Hydrogen has long been touted as a replacement for greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels, but there’s a catch: right now, nearly the entire global supply of hydrogen is made using fossil fuels. Steam methane reforming is the most common method. It involves super-heating a mixture of methane and water to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which is usually released into the atmosphere.

More sustainable ways of producing hydrogen – water electrolysis for example – are possible, but many times more expensive than producing it from fossil fuels. That’s largely because industrial scale electrolysis involves either very large cells circulating highly caustic electrolytes or in the case of acidic electrolysis cells, electrodes made of expensive non-corrosive platinum group metals.

“If we use caustic electrolytes, we can use cheaper materials such as nickel,” says Holdcroft, who is also past president of the Canadian Society for Chemistry. “And if we can replace caustic liquid with a thin membrane that can transport hydroxide ions, then we can design ‘zero-gap’ electrolytic cells, which increases efficiency and reduces the cell footprint, both of which significantly reduce cost.”

But there’s a challenge here too: caustic solutions quickly degrade plastic membranes.  Which is why when Holdcroft and his team came up with the chemistry to make thin plastic films that can withstand caustic solutions and transport hydroxide ions, they decided to found Ionomr.

The chemical composition of their plastic – polybenzimidazoles and/or polyimidazoles – is similar to some commercial polymers. The key difference is that commercial polymers’ chemical bonds cannot withstand caustic solution, while Ionomr’s polymer is up to the task.

Holdcroft’s research group is also behind Ionomr’s other product – a hydrocarbon-based proton exchange membrane that eliminates the use of potentially-toxic fluorine reagents found in existing proton exchange membranes. Applications include advanced battery technologies such as electrodes, coatings and solid polymer electrolytes.

Ionomr’s co-founder, electrochemist Ben Britton, who did his PhD in the Holdcroft lab, says the series A funding is a major show of industry’s confidence in Ionomr’s membrane and polymer technology.

“This funding will allow us to scale up production and accelerate our time to market, increase our research and development of applications, and ensure we have the capacity to meet demand,” says Britton. “What began in the Holdcroft lab is now well on its way to being a viable commercial application that will help accelerate and grow the green hydrogen economy.”