One of the biggest sources of global carbon emissions may surprise you. We hear a lot about the carbon footprint of industries such as power and transport, but most people know less about the chemical industry. In particular, its processes to separate chemical compounds account for as much as 15% of energy consumption in markets such as the US. These processes, used in the production of everything from fuel to plastics, and alcohol to cosmetics, are integral to modern manufacturing – and therefore a critical target as the world works to tackle the climate change crisis.
Enter Swiss start-up UniSieve, which is today announcing it has completed a $5.5 million seed funding round. The business, founded in 2018 by Samuel Hess and Elia Schneider, has developed a completely different way to separate chemicals. The approach requires 90% less energy – and is therefore a potential game-changer in terms of carbon emissions, as well as cost.
Conventional chemical separation processes are based on distillation, a process that uses huge amounts of heat. By contrast, UniSieve has developed a unique membrane that separates compounds by sieving them – much in the same way as people are used to using a filter to ensure their ground coffee doesn’t flow through to the cup.
“We’re replacing a thermal process with a mechanical one,” explains Hess, the CEO of the company. “It is far more energy efficient than distillation, which also means it is much cheaper and cleaner.”
Professor Wendelin Jan Stark of the Institute for Chemical and Bioengineering at Switzerland’s ETH Zürich believes such innovation could have a huge impact in the fight against climate change. “What we are witnessing here is the onset of a switch of technology in big industry that will remove a substantial carbon footprint,” he says. “Sieving requires much less energy than distillation – the significant energy savings, globally, will potentially recover the total energy consumption of a large nation.”
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At the very least, innovation in this area offers the chemicals sector an opportunity to get on the right track. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency in the US suggests the industry’s emissions have continued to rise in recent years.
With such a huge prize on offer – apparently from something as simple as sieving – the obvious question is why the chemicals industry has not developed this sort of solution until now. One problem has been developing a membrane with holes of the right size to separate chemicals. Many chemicals vary in size by a fraction of an angstrom – 1 angstrom is one-tenth of a nanometer (one billionth of a metre) – so incredible precision is required.
“The sieve has to be extremely narrow and precise,” Hess says. “The UniSieve membrane is a structure made of a highly-ordered network of porous crystals that generate in a repeating pattern, much like ancient Roman mosaics.” Uniquely, he explains, the business has developed a technique to combine this molecular sieve with a support layer to create a membrane that works consistently and robustly.
The other challenge facing innovators in this area has been translating laboratory projects into commercial prospects. A technology that works on a small scale in an experimental setting needs to deliver the same benefits when installed in a large industrial setting. Here, UniSieve thinks it has an edge, having spent the last five years perfecting the technology, latterly working in collaboration with industrial clients to test the solution in real-world settings.
Certainly, there is a race to commercialise. Some relatively well-known companies, including Air Liquide, Air Products and Evonik have already developed membranes for specific applications. Emerging companies competing directly with UniSieve include Via Separations and Imtex.
However, Hess insists UniSieve has an advantage. “Our technology can be engineered and adapted to various applications quickly while guaranteeing a high-precision separation,” he says. “Also, compared to other interesting membrane concepts, we have demonstrated economic scalability via continuous pilot-production processes.”
Today’s funding round should help the company build on these foundations, enabling it to step up the work it is doing to demonstrate its technology at industrial scale. If all goes to plan, Hess hopes full-scale commercial installations could be up and running by late 2024; he envisages a hybrid business model, with sales of equipment to clients upfront and then predictive maintenance contracts sitting alongside.
The company’s investors are excited by that vision. “Energy intensive production processes have been a key talking point across the board, but we’re seeing action now,” says Lukas Weder, a founding partner at Wingman Ventures, which has backed the business since its pre-seed stage. “Two important things are happening that are driving this action: heavy industry is willing to invest in solutions to tackle the problem and better-quality solutions are available.”