(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a five-part series focused on various aspects of Tennessee’s statewide mentor network that currently supports start-ups in two key sectors – life sciences and energy.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
One of the recent graduates of the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education is also the newest member of the “Energy Mentor Network” operated by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council (TAEBC) with support from Launch Tennessee.
Alex Lewis, Co-Founder of Electro-Active Technologies LLC, grew-up in Northern California and earned his B.S. in Environmental Systems from the University of California at San Diego. A stint as a volunteer in an algae biotechnology lab piqued his interest in renewable energy.
“I decided I wanted to get my Ph.D.,” Lewis told us in a recent interview. That decision brought him to East Tennessee in 2013 to participate in the Bredesen Center, a joint effort of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The collaboration links doctoral students with ORNL researchers, and Lewis began working with Abhijeet Borole, then a researcher at ORNL.
Immediately after completing his doctorate, the California native co-founded the start-up, and Borole came onboard full-time earlier this year.
“We’re taking organic waste and turning it into renewable hydrogen,” Lewis explained. “We use special microbes to eat the waste and extract electrons that are used to make the hydrogen. We’ve proven it at lab scale. We’re now looking for SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grants.”
That focus took him to Denver earlier this month for an “Energy I-Corps” program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.
What’s the significance of Electro-Active Technologies’ focus?
“We want to solve two problems,” Lewis says. One is to use waste to make renewable energy at a lower cost than other options. The second is to provide a cost-effective way for commercial enterprises to dispose of their waste material other than into a landfill. Both goals fit into the sustainability bucket.
In the case of the first goal, Lewis says the two most popular renewable options to produce hydrogen are water electrolysis and biomass gasification. The former is getting most of the attention currently, but it has high capital and high electricity requirements. Gasification also involves additional expense, because the waste and the hydrogen required must be transported to and from a central location.
Electro-Active Technologies plans to address the second challenge by developing a modular system that could be installed onsite at grocery stores where food and other wastes would be converted to hydrogen to fuel forklifts, for example.
“One of the things holding fuel cells back is the cost of hydrogen and the lack of a renewable supply,” Lewis notes.
Electro-Active Technologies is in process of executing an R & D license with ORNL for two technologies. One involves how the microbes are enriched; the other is for a novel microbial electrolysis.
As far as the “Energy Mentor Network,” Lewis says the start-up just completed the intake panel and was assigned its mentors. Dan Hurst, Founder and President of Knoxville-based Strata-G, is the lead mentor supported by Tony Lettich of The Angel Roundtable and FundingSage LLC, Jonathan Patrick, a local businessman and entrepreneurial supporter, and Harvey Abouelata, Founder of ARiES Energy and now Vice President of Commercial Solar at Solar Alliance.
“We come from the technical side,” Lewis said of the two co-founders. “The mentors will help us on the business side.”
For Lewis, the focus on waste-to-hydrogen is something he never anticipated when he came to the region.
“I took a big switch,” he says. “Algae was my passion.” Along the way, he fell in love with East Tennessee.