Cleantech trailblazers need more EU support ‍

Germany’s Electrochaea is applying microbiology in innovative ways to produce renewable methane that can replace fossil fuels. The company has joined other European climate scale-ups to urgently advocate for EU policies that more effectively address their needs.

- By Dr. Doris Hafenbradl - CTO and Managing Director, Electrochaea

In 1971, two scientists drew a sludge sample from a sewage treatment plant in Urbana, Illinois, a college town in the American Midwest. Returning to their lab, the scientists discovered a single-cell, bacteria-like organism that produced copious amounts of methane gas. Over the next few years, the field of microbiology advanced rapidly. Thrilling discoveries were made by scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. However, no discovery was bigger than what was ultimately learned about that tiny organism living in the sludge.

By 1977, researchers at the University of Illinois understood the organism to be an archaea. This represented a whole new domain of life, some 3.5 billion years old and genetically distinct from the other two known kingdoms at the time, bacteria and eukarya. It was front-page news around the world.

Today, a technology utilizing a strain of archaea not unlike the one first discovered half a century ago is helping my company solve some of Europe’s biggest energy challenges, including how to store renewable energy. While our technology is unique, it also represents the kinds of advances dozens of other innovative companies across the continent are making to help the European Union achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Furthermore, it highlights just how critical EU support is to help these types of relatively new cleantech companies scale up and industrialize their operations.

The power of public investments

I’m a microbiologist and Chief Technology Officer of a Munich-based cleantech company called Electrochaea. Our technology takes carbon emissions from industrial operations, then uses a special reactor to combine CO2 with hydrogen molecules generated via renewable electrolysis. We then introduce a proprietary strain of archaea to gobble up all that carbon and hydrogen. What’s left is renewable methane so highly graded it can be directly injected into existing fossil gas infrastructure.

At our demonstration site in Switzerland – which was built thanks to funding from the EU’s Horizon Europe programme – we show cleantech innovation in action: a cylindrical bioreactor fabricated of stainless-steel stands two stories tall. It is latticed with piping and pocked with industrial equipment like levers, dials and gages. Small motors whizz and stir. Vents hiss. A vessel traps a pea-green foam slurry. Inside, carbon emissions are chemically transformed into renewable methane.

With help from the European Innovation Council’s Accelerator fund, the technology was scaled to fit with major European industrial sites like cement plants, waste-to-energy plants, steel mills, biogas plants, breweries, as well as landfill and bioethanol plants. We can take carbon emitted from a site’s production process, then use the chemical bonds of methane to store renewable power for as long as needed.

Unfortunately, like dozens of other cleantech companies in Europe, we are facing unnecessary hurdles to scale up and industrialize. Too often, smaller cleantech startups get outgunned by larger incumbents in public funding calls, or they crumble under the weight of a crushing regulatory burden.

At Electrochaea, for example, we’ve struggled with slow permitting processes that often take years – longer even than permitting for many wind farms. By more quickly developing our projects, we can attract more interest from investors, helping us to scale up more quickly.

Also, e-fuels need to be recognized, more clearly defined, and allowed as replacement fuels. We sometimes encounter gas grid operators and utilities hesitant to be first-movers by using our technology. Authorities need a better understanding of how to handle new types of molecules.

Finally, biological CO2 is currently eligible for incentives if it’s captured and stored. Yet right now, there are no invectives on the books for using this carbon as a basis for renewable molecules that can replace fossil fuel use. This needs to change. Both pathways should be eligible for incentives.

Advocating for stronger cleantech policies

For Europe’s economy to become more dynamic and compete with the U.S. in global cleantech – especially in light of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, which is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into cleantech – these kinds of challenges must be addressed. That’s why we joined with peers from across the broader European cleantech business community, including companies that produce zero-carbon steel, manufacture electric trucks and recycle chemicals. Together, we formed the Cleantech for Europe Scale-Up Coalition with the goal of helping European policymakers better understand our unique needs.

To do so, we’ve developed four pillars for urgent EU policy action: mobilize hundreds of billions of additional euros in private and public capital over the next decade for cleantech companies seeking to scale up; create a “demand-shock” through measures like green public procurement and the phase-out of the free carbon allowances which essentially do nothing more than subsidize pollution; simplify and streamline cumbersome regulatory and approval processes; and build out the infrastructure cleantech companies need to scale up, including a more modern electric grid and more sites that can store or utilize carbon.

Just like microbiology in the 1970s, the global energy industry is going through a period of upheaval. The way we produce and consume it is rapidly changing. The EU needs to better understand and provide much more support to the most innovative companies in the field, the ones blazing the cleanest path forward. Anything less, and the EU will be left in the dust.

Dr. Doris Hafenbradl is the Chief Technology Officer  and Managing Director of Electrochaea. She has a PhD. in microbiology from the University of Regensburg.

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