One of the world’s biggest sources of carbon emissions may surprise you. We hear a lot about the carbon footprint of industries like energy and transportation, but most people know less about the chemical industry. In particular, its processes for separating chemical compounds account for up to 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 address the climate change crisis.
Enter Swiss start-up UniSieve, which today announced it has completed a $5.5 million seed funding round. The business, founded in 2019 by Samuel Hess and Elia Schneider, has developed a completely different way of separating chemicals. The approach requires 90% less energy and is therefore a potential game-changer in terms of carbon emissions and cost.
Conventional chemical separation processes are based on distillation, a process that uses large amounts of heat. Instead, UniSieve has developed a unique membrane that separates the compounds by sieving them, in the same way that people are used to using a filter to ensure that ground coffee does not flow into the cup.
“We are replacing a thermal process with a mechanical one,” explains Hess, the company’s CEO. “It’s much more energy efficient than distillation, which also means it’s much cheaper and cleaner.”
Professor Wendelin Jan Stark, from the Institute of Chemistry and Bioengineering at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, believes this innovation could have a major impact on the fight against climate change. “What we’re witnessing here is the beginning of a technology shift in big industry that will eliminate a substantial carbon footprint,” he says. “Sifting requires much less energy than distillation: the significant energy savings, globally, will potentially recover the total energy consumption of a large nation.”
At the very least, innovation in this area offers the chemical sector an opportunity to move in the right direction. Data from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggest that industry emissions have continued to rise in recent years.
With such a large prize on offer, seemingly from something as simple as a sieve, the obvious question is why the chemical industry hasn’t developed this kind of solution until now. One problem has been developing a membrane with holes of the right size to separate the chemicals. Many chemicals vary in size by a fraction of an angstrom (1 angstrom is one-tenth of a nanometer (one billionth of a meter), so incredible precision is required.
“The sieve has to be extremely narrow and precise,” says Hess. “The UniSieve membrane is a structure made up of a highly ordered network of porous crystals that are generated in a repetitive pattern, 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 performs consistently and robustly.
The other challenge faced by innovators in this field has been translating laboratory projects into commercial prospects. A technology that works on a small scale in an experimental environment should offer the same benefits when deployed in a large industrial environment. Here, UniSieve believes it has an advantage, having spent the past five years perfecting the technology, most recently working in collaboration with industrial customers to test the solution in real-world environments.
There is certainly a career to market. Some relatively well-known companies, such as Air Liquide, Air Products and Evonik, have already developed membranes for specific applications. Startups competing directly with UniSieve include Via Separations and Impex.
However, Hess insists UniSieve has an advantage. “Our technology can be designed and adapted to various applications quickly while ensuring high-precision separation,” he says. “Furthermore, compared to other interesting membrane concepts, we have demonstrated economic scalability through continuous pilot production processes.”
Today’s funding round should help the company build on those foundations, allowing it to scale up the work it’s doing to demonstrate its technology at industrial scale. If all goes according to plan, Hess expects the full-scale commercial facilities could be up and running by the end of 2024; envisions a hybrid business model, with equipment sales to customers up front and then predictive maintenance contracts on the side.
The company’s investors are excited about this vision. “Energy-intensive production processes have been a key talking point across the board, but now we’re seeing action,” says Lukas Weder, founding partner of Wingman Ventures, which has backed the business since its pre-seed stage . “Two big things are happening that are driving this action: Heavy industry is willing to invest in solutions to address the problem, and there are better quality solutions.”
The world is facing dangerous climate change as a result of the production and use of fossil fuels for energy. As this trend continues, it is necessary to explore carbon-reducing solutions for the manufacturing industry. At Ikaroa, we are doing just that. Our revolutionary UniSieve technology is shifting the chemical industry away from the intensive use of fossil fuels and towards a greener production process that reduces its carbon footprint.
UniSieve is a platform consisting of a small unit that is placed near the production line that corrects the concentrations of specific chemical components to the necessary specifications. This technology not only reduces carbon emissions, but also ensures product consistency and increases efficiency in the production process.
In contrast to existing systems, UniSieve can be implemented with minimal costs and disruption, seamlessly integrating into existing systems. This technology has an especially large potential impact in the petrochemical industry, which uses fossil fuels to produce chemicals such as gasoline, asphalt, diesel fuel and benzene.
At Ikaroa, we are committed to reducing the carbon footprint in the chemical industry through innovative solutions like UniSieve. Through continuous research and development, we are getting ever closer to achieving our goal of a greener industry. Along with the necessary action from legislators and other stakeholders, we will soon see a sharp decline in the environmental impact of the chemical industry.