KU Leuven’s hydrogen panels incorporated into a spin-off

Tom Bosserez and Jan Rongé © Solhyd, M. Mertens
Tom Bosserez and Jan Rongé © Solhyd, M. Mertens
Producing renewable fuel anywhere in the world, based on light and air? It can be done with the unique hydrogen technology developed at KU Leuven. This has been demonstrated extensively in recent years by integrating the technology into a hydrogen panel. Now that the innovation is sufficiently mature, a new KU Leuven spin-off has just been established - Solhyd - which will demonstrate its potential in market-oriented (pilot) projects. A consortium of investors is committing to invest up to 6 million euros into the company over the next few years. A first tranche of 2 million euros in seed capital is already being put on the table today.

Hydrogen will play an important role in the future energy mix in the transition to a CO2-neutral society. If made from green electricity, it is a renewable source of energy (’green hydrogen’), which can also be easily stored and transported. However: green electricity is scarce and still expensive, so hydrogen production today is mainly based on natural gas (’gray hydrogen’).

Today, less than 1% of hydrogen demand is met by renewable hydrogen gas. We need to raise that percentage quickly to meet climate goals. In that transition, Solhyd wants to be an important partner and we have that opportunity now.

Jan Rongé, CEO Solhyd
That’s why Jan Rongé and Tom Bosserez - both until recently KU Leuven researchers - invented an alternative, under the guidance of Professor Johan Martens of the Center for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis. They call their alternative ’golden hydrogen’.

"That is hydrogen made directly from light and air", explains Jan Rongé. "We developed a unique patented technology that using sunlight, splits the water vapor present in the air into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas through a membrane. So with our technology, which we built like a hydrogen panel, you can produce renewable fuel anywhere. On any scale, without needing electricity from the grid and without using rare or harmful materials. It is a necessary complement to electrolysers, which require large amounts of green electricity, rare metals and liquid water."

Big ambitions

The hydrogen panel is the same size as a solar panel and produces hydrogen as soon as it is outside. "The potential of the technology is very important," says Rongé. "In the short term, it could be used by SMEs to move away from oil and gas, for example in their freight transport. In the longer term, it could help industries such as the steel and chemical industry make their operations more sustainable. By 2050, the demand for renewable hydrogen is expected to be as high as the demand for natural gas is today."

In order to respond to that demand with the promising technology, and thus help reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the new KU Leuven spin-off Solhyd has just been founded. The company has raised two million euros in seed capital from four Flemish investors and from the university’s own Gemma Frisius seed capital fund. This consortium is also committed to releasing up to six million euros in total, depending on the needs and results of the spin-off.

I am proud that our pioneering research is being valorized in a spin-off and it will have the opportunity to blossom into a world innovation in a global market. You can see hydrogen as a way for chemistry to contribute to a CO2-neutral society. Our system to produce hydrogen is CO2-neutral and also water-neutral: we take water vapor out of the air, generate energy with it, and at the end of the cycle you have water vapor again.

Professor Johan Martens, co-founder Solhyd
"Solhyd will use these resources in the coming years to further demonstrate the potential of hydrogen technology in pilot and market-oriented projects", Rongé explains. "To this end, we will collaborate with companies that want to take a leading role in the sustainable transition. Together, we will also examine whether the technology can be cost-effectively applied in products other than the hydrogen panel. The challenge is great: the use of oil and gas urgently needs to go to zero. So our ambitions are big as well."

KU Leuven Research & Development

KU Leuven Research & Development (LRD) guides researchers of the KU Leuven Association in translating innovative knowledge and technologies into services and products that have a positive impact on people’s lives worldwide. Since its inception in 1972, LRD has supported the creation and growth of 151 spin-off companies (status at the end of 2022), creating more than 7,700 jobs at home and abroad. Between 2005 and 2022, LRD invested 23.7 million euros in spin-offs and more than 1.77 billion euros in external capital was raised. 124 KU Leuven spin-offs, the first of which was founded in 1979, were still active at the end of 2022. Many of these companies hold leading international positions.     Gemma Frisius Fund