Through electrolysis, U of I startup repurposing excess electricity to produce hydrogen

4/23/2019

Mike Koon, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Chaitanya Gulati refined NASADYA through the Cozad New Venture competition.
Chaitanya Gulati refined NASADYA through the Cozad New Venture competition.
As the world continues to move toward alternative clean energy, there remains a similar problem so far without a solution – what to do with excess energy not used by the grid. NASADYA, a startup formed by University of Illinois student Chaitanya Gulati, has discovered a promising solution – use electrolysis to break down the energy and produce carbon-free hydrogen.
 
Gulati explained that even renewable energy like wind and solar need to compensate for the fact that they can’t produce the same energy at night as it can during the day. 
 
“The problem we are trying to solve is of that overgeneration,” Gulati said. “Take solar for example. During the day the demand goes down. Because every house has their own solar cell, they don’t need much electricity from the grid. However, when the sun goes down, the demand goes up. Because companies can’t ramp up their production that quickly, they tend to overproduce during the day.”
 
That, according to Gulati, results in excess electricity. What many companies do is store that electricity and then attempt to use it again later or sell it to other utility companies. The method is not very energy efficient nor environmentally safe.
 
“When they overproduce, they have all this excess electricity,” Gulati said. “They can’t keep it in the grid, because if they do, the grid will burn up, so they have to get rid of it. The way they do that is through negative pricing or paying other utilities to take their electricity.”
 
NASADYA has a more efficient method that is ultimately safer for the environment – take excess electricity to create a chemical reaction and separate the elements of a chemical compound. While there are some companies using this method called electrolysis, they are using acids and bases. Instead NASADYA is using water to flow through the current and produce hydrogen and oxygen from water. 
 
In doing so, Gulati and his team are addressing another need, that is the production of hydrogen. NASADYA is giving energy companies a chance to not only break down their excess electricity, but do so in a way to allow them to sell the resulting hydrogen to companies needing it. Essentially, converting a money losing by-product into a money-making co-product!
 
“The demand for hydrogen is increasing every year in such uses as fuel cells and petroleum refineries,” Gulati said. “The common methods for hydrogen production, burning methane to make carbon and hydrogen, results in 100 million tons of Carbon Emissions every year.”
 
Interestingly, Gulati came across this idea while trying to solve another problem, giving divers a way to spend more uninterrupted time under water. Instead of needing an oxygen tank, Gulati developed a method to use electrolysis to break down existing water into hydrogen and oxygen and sending the oxygen to the diver’s mask. What he ultimately realized was he could use the same process to focus on the production of hydrogen, a solution to a more demanding problem.
 
Gulati pitched his idea at the National Academy of Engineering-sponsored Global Grand Challenges Summit and was one of 30 university teams across the country to advance to the United States finals held this week in both Washington, DC, and Irvine, California.
 
NASADYA has successfully conducted proof-of-concept experiments and is applying for funding to produce a small-scale prototype. As part of the customer discovery phase, Gulati is consulting with energy companies who are receptive to his solution. He is hoping to land incubator space through an accelerator program this summer and will continue moving the technology into a viable product.
 
“I want to make sure we have good clean systems in the future,” Gulati said. “Storage systems will make us independent of the grid but they don’t solve the problem of overgeneration. Our system makes sure the electricity doesn’t go to waste or harm the environment, instead it is harnessed into something useful.”