SwitcH2, a company created in 2019 out of the Particles and Catalysis Research Group and UNSW Founders Program, has won competitive funding to develop a product that converts wastewater to hydrogen in industrial settings.

The prize of $10,000 was awarded to switcH2, co-founded by UNSW Scientia PhD student Constantine Tsounis and fellow Chemical Engineering students Khushal Polepalle and Bijil Subhash, in the latest round of the NSW Government’s Innovation Districts Challenge.

The Innovation Districts Challenges is a $3 million investment by the NSW Government in the state’s innovation ecosystem. The Challenges aim to accelerate the commercialisation of research products that address the impacts of COVID-19, with the latest in the series specifically recognising Entrepreneurship via R&D solutions that strengthen the entrepreneurship capability of the state for a post-COVID-19 economy.

“Initiatives like the NSW Innovation Districts Challenge support companies like switcH2 to bridge the gap between university and industry, and we look forward to translating our technology to make a direct and tangible impact,” Tsounis said.

The switcH2 team’s proposal aims to create an affordable, carbon-free energy source for industries by producing clean hydrogen from industrial organic wastewater through a process called wastewater electrolysis.

‘Pure’ water electrolysis already exists as a technology, but it demands a lot of electricity and water, stringent operating conditions, and large capital cost – factors that impede its widescale adoption.

The Innovation Districts Challenge funding will help switcH2 revolutionise the decentralised production of hydrogen from waste and enable a range of industries to convert their processes into circular economies.

Specifically, it will fund a working pilot electrolyzer system at Jervis Bay Brewing (JBB). SwitcH2 hope the pilot will set a precedent for the beer manufacturing industry to convert their waste into clean hydrogen and reduce a portion of the 528.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent produced annually in Australia.

The team has focused on breweries due to the large quantity of wastewater produced – around five litres for every one litre of beer – and their current complex energy mix, which includes diesel, liquefied petroleum gas, and natural gas.

Constantine Tsounis says the switcH2 technology can be utilised across a range of wastewater-intensive industries, including dairy farming and water treatment. In future, excess hydrogen produced could potentially be sold on to other businesses.

“At a high level, the problem being addressed is the use of fossil fuels by industry as an energy source,” Tsounis says.

“Currently, industries such as breweries are reliant upon natural gas, diesel, and LPG as their energy source, contributing significantly to their emissions footprint. The hydrogen produced using switcH2’s electrolyzer technology presents a clean energy source that can be utilised to meet their energy demand.

“The competitive advantage switcH2 has for this project and others lies in the catalyst and electrolyzer technology which has been developed such that it is capable of processing organic waste.

“The impact of this technology means more energy-efficient electrolysis occurs relative to pure water electrolysis, with the breakdown of the organic components within the wastewater requiring a lower electricity input and consequently representing a lower cost for users.”