Bill Gates Visits Hydrogen Startup and Fills Pothole with Carbon-Trapping Asphalt


Key Takeaways:

– Bill Gates visited the hydrogen tech startup, Modern Hydrogen, and filled a pothole using a novel carbon-trapping asphalt.
– The company has developed a device that crumbles natural gas molecules, resulting in hydrogen for fuel and a byproduct called carbon black, which can be used in asphalt and various other industrial applications.
– Seattle-based Modern Hydrogen is working on a larger second-generation reactor for production at its new facility in Woodinville.
– The startup has successfully deployed demo reactors to two customers and continues to focus on the broad applications of its technology.

Bill Gates Delves Into Modern Hydrogen Technology

On Wednesday, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates visited the climate technology startup Modern Hydrogen. During his visit, he grabbed a wheelbarrow and shovel to fill a parking lot pothole with a new type of asphalt that sequesters carbon. His engagement and hands-on approach during the visit was highly appreciated by Tony Pan, the CEO of Modern Hydrogen.

The Technology Behind Modern Hydrogen

Modern Hydrogen is a Seattle-based tech firm with a focus on climate-friendly technologies. The company has devised a groundbreaking device capable of breaking down natural gas molecules to produce hydrogen for fuel. Additionally, an industrial product known as carbon black is generated, which has a range of applications, including acting as a key ingredient in asphalt.

Gates took the opportunity to view a demonstration of the methane pyrolysis reactor. This innovative technology sources natural gas from fossil fuels or biogas, like manure, and creates pure hydrogen. Burning this hydrogen fuel results in water vapor production, positioning it as a clean energy source. It can be applied to energy production, steel manufacturing, and fuel cells.

Recently, Modern Hydrogen has showcased its demo reactors to NW Natural, Oregon’s leading natural gas utility, and another client based in Miami. Alongside the reactor’s environmental benefits, its compact size of half a shipping container makes it feasible for placement in locations where the fuel is required.

The Story Behind Modern Hydrogen

Founded in 2015 under the initial name Modern Electron, the startup commenced its operations at Intellectual Ventures. The innovation hub, launched by ex-Microsoft researcher Nathan Myhrvold with Gates’ support, allowed Modern Hydrogen to thrive. Initially, the startup focused its efforts on appliances that could capture wasted heat from home furnaces and water heaters to convert it into electricity but then shifted its attention to hydrogen production.

Gates, a founding investor, has always shown keen interest in the company’s technology, paying several visits over the years. Being a strong supporter of clean energy, Gates has expressed his enthusiasm for hydrogen fuel, dubbing it the “Swiss Army knife” of clean energy due to its broad array of applications.

Challenges Ahead and Modern Hydrogen’s Approach

Despite its potential, hydrogen fuel presents its set of challenges. It’s expensive to transport, thereby necessitating onsite production and usage. To counter this, Modern Hydrogen’s reactors are designed to be self-sufficient. In optimal conditions, a quarter of the produced hydrogen is reused to generate more fuel.

Also, there is the question of how to best utilize the carbon black byproduct. Ideally, it can be appropriated for applications like tires, ink, and rubber. However, the team at Modern Hydrogen discovered that the carbon black can also replace some of the bitumen, often derived from fossil fuels, which binds the sand and gravel used in asphalt. Thanks to the startup’s pioneering technology, carbon sequestration becomes attainable, overall climate impacts are reduced, and costs are saved.

Looking forward, Modern Hydrogen plans to create a larger, second-generation version of its reactor in its newly-acquired Woodinville facility. Supported by $100 million in venture capital and a team of 60 employees, Modern Hydrogen is eager to continue exploring the potential of its technology. In addition to the company’s efforts, there are several other hydrogen fuel initiatives in progress across Washington, solidifying the Pacific Northwest’s position as a key player in the clean energy sector.

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