seeing results

Houston startup founders report on clean energy tech efficacy

Rice University researchers and Syzygy founders detail how they converted ammonia into carbon-free fuel using a light-activated catalyst in a new report. Photo courtesy of Rice University

A team from Rice University has uncovered an inexpensive, scalable way to produce clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

In research published this month in the journal Science, researchers from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics, in partnership with Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, detail how they converted ammonia into carbon-free fuel using a light-activated catalyst.

The new catalyst separates the liquid ammonia into hydrogen gas and nitrogen gas. Traditional catalysts require heat for chemical transformations, but the new catalyst can spur reactions with just the use of sunlight or LED light.

Additionally, the team showed that copper-iron antenna-reactors could be used in these light-driven chemical reactions, known as plasmonic photocatalysis. In heat-based reactions, or thermocatalysis, platinum, and related precious (and expensive) metals like palladium, rhodium, and ruthenium are required.

“Transition metals like iron are typically poor thermocatalysts,” Naomi Halas, a co-author of the report from Rice, said in a statement. “This work shows they can be efficient plasmonic photocatalysts. It also demonstrates that photocatalysis can be efficiently performed with inexpensive LED photon sources.”

Halas, Rice's Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was joined on the project by Peter Nordlander, Rice’s Wiess Chair and Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Rice alumni and adjunct professor of chemistry Hossein Robatjazi. Emily Carter, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and Environment, represented Princeton University.

“These results are a great motivator," Carter added. "They suggest it is likely that other combinations of abundant metals could be used as cost-effective catalysts for a wide range of chemical reactions.”

Houston-based Syzygy, which Halas and Nordlander founded in 2018, has licensed the technology used in the research and has begun scaled-up tests of the catalyst in the company’s commercially available, LED-powered reactors. According to Rice, the test at Syzygy showed the catalysts retained their efficiency under LED illumination and at a scale 500 times larger than in tests in the lab setup at Rice.

“This discovery paves the way for sustainable, low-cost hydrogen that could be produced locally rather than in massive centralized plants,” Nordlander said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Syzygy closed its $76 million series C round to continue its technology development ahead of future deployment/

Houston is home to many other organizations and researchers leading the charge in growing the hydrogen economy.

Earlier this year, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced he's determined to position the city as hub for hydrogen innovation as one of the EPA's Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs. Organizations in Texas, Southwest Louisiana and the surrounding Gulf Coast region, known and HyVelocity Hub, also announced this month that it would be applying for the regional funding.

And according to a recent report from The Center for Houston's Future, the Bayou City is poised to "lead a transformational clean hydrogen hub with global impact."

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Houstonian Joe Schurman's latest venture PhenomAInon is aimed at tapping into AI and data analytics for for space domain awareness and threat detection. Photo via Getty Images

As artificial intelligence continues to expand its sphere of influence, Spring-based expert Joe Schurman is looking to take this technology to an out-of-this-world space.

With his background includes working with advising defense and aerospace organizations like NASA, Schurman's latest venture PhenomAInon is perfectly aligned with what he’s been working towards since 2019. The company aims to be a multi-tiered subscription service and application that will be the world’s first cloud native data and AI platform for phenomenon-based data analysis that can analyze data from any source for space domain awareness and threat detection, according to Schurman.

The platform aims to provide end-to-end data and AI analysis, publish insights, build community, and provide cloud, data, and software consulting. PhenomAInon deploys data and AI services alongside modern data and AI engineering, per the website, to surface insights to explorers, researchers, organizations, publications, and communities through advanced data and AI analysis. Schurman has worked with the U.S. government's task force for unidentified anomalous phenomenon — any perceived aerial phenomenon that cannot be immediately identified or explained — known as UAPTF. The tool will run sensitive information and then get back custom video analysis. The public version of the tool will give the public the option to view videos and cases, and form their own analysis.

“We are working together with multiple teams both public and private to continue to curate the data sets, clear documents for public review, and provide advanced analytics and AI capabilities never seen before to the public,” Schurman tells InnovationMap. “From a data and analytics perspective, we are applying machine learning and advanced analytics to find correlations and anomalies in the incident reports across multiple data sets.

"Some of these are public, some are private, and some we are clearing for public review," he continues. "The analytics will go far beyond incident reporting and showcase heat maps, correlative incident maps to key private and public sector facilities, and trends analysis never reported — e.g. incident reporting correlated with time, weather, FAA, and drone flight data, etc. We also have a new content analysis platform where users will be able to eventually run their own AI and ML analysis on their own videos.”

Schurman was first able to show this to the world in 2019, when as an adviser for To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, or TTSA. He also appeared on History Channel’s “Unidentified: Inside America's UFO Investigation” to show the Pentagon’s former Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program head and TTSA Director of Special Programs Luis Elizondo how the AI platform could be helpful in tracking data related to Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

Now, PhenomAInon's app is a work-in-progress. While it soft launched in May of 2022, Schurman says they have several data sets that are awaiting clearing from the U.S. government, as well as the content analysis tool in development to launch possibly by the summer. Schurman also hopes they will curate the largest library of incident videos, images, and audio recordings.

The subject of UAP continues to attract new discussions from government officials and industry professions across aerospace, academia, and more. In Houston, Rice University's Woodson Research Center and its humanities department host one of the largest archives of UAP and paranormal data, notes, and research that include documents from CIA programs on remote viewing.

Schurman says he's looking to provide even more data and information in this space.

“This phenomenon, it’s implications to multiple aspects of our lives and possible security threats, all come down to a data problem and the organizations that have been in place to-date just have not had the level of cloud, data and AI engineering capabilities we take for granted and have access to in the private sector,” says Schurman. “My goal is to bring this all together, starting with PhenomAInon.”

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