Startup Spotlight: Protium Innovations

Screenshot 2016-04-28 13.45.53Protium Innovations, LLC

Researchers: Jacob Leachman, Patrick Adam, Ian Richardson, Elijah Shoemake

Launched: 2015

Problem: Our dependence on oil and the pollution created by burning fossil fuels has prompted a tremendous amount of research and development of alternative fuel options. Liquified hydrogen – which can be used in fuel cells to power electric car and aircraft – is one of the cleanest alternative fuel options that can also be produced in the U.S. from a variety of sources. Current methods to liquefy hydrogen are difficult and costly, however, keeping this promising alternative fuel source from widespread adoption.

Solution: Members from Protium Innovations pioneered several foundational technologies while at WSU that will enable renewable producers to increase the value of their energy and to create a new market for selling their excess capacity.

At the heart of their innovation is a vortex tube that utilizes a quantum mechanical property unique to hydrogen for refrigeration. The vortex tube is low-cost and also smaller than current liquefaction methods, significantly reducing the capital cost of a liquefier. The researchers are incorporating that technology into the development of hydrogen fueling stations and tanks that will make the fuel accessible for use in cars and aircraft.

Impact: Protium’s innovation provides a new opportunity for renewable energy producers, empowering them to capture the full capacity of their power generation plants. The goal of Dr. Leachman and his team is to make hydrogen a viable fuel source, and make Washington a distributor, world-wide leader and net exporter.

Protium also gives students impressive experience in business, augmenting their scientific knowledge and preparing them for a wide range of career possibilities. Students can adopt an existing or innovate a new concept to develop with the company in addition to contributing research to benefit the company, instilling an entrepreneurial spirit early on. In fact, an undergraduate student team recently won second place in the WSU Business Plan Competition for work they did in collaboration with Protium. Not only will this company impact our energy future, it is training a future innovative workforce.

Recent developments: Dr. Leachman and his team recently held their first Hydrogen Symposium, and have been building relationships with potential industry partners. One example is Ag Energy Solutions, a company started by WSU alumni Phil Appel to turn farmers’ excess biomass into renewable fuel sources that save the farmers time and money, while also adding an additional revenue source. Hydrogen is a byproduct of the company’s activities, and could become a supplier for Protium’s products.

Dr. Leachman recently received support for research that will advance that possibility from WSU’s Commercialization Gap Fund. Other recent funding includes a $2.2M grant to advance liquid hydrogen power, and  JCATI funding for continued research with on small-modular hydrogen liquefaction.

Looking ahead:

The Protium researchers are currently focused on running experiments that will establish proof of concepts within a scaled version of the fueling station to be operated as a service center on the WSU-Pullman campus. Once that is established, the company will begin looking for initial funding from sources like SBIR and local angels.