The Electrochaea management team: Mich Hein and Doris Hafenbradl (from the left)
photo: Electrochaea

Electrochaea: Climate-Friendly Gas From Bioreactors

Energy storage systems are a core challenge when using renewable energy. Power and heat need to be available at peak times, even when the sun isn’t shining and there’s no wind. Electrochaea has developed a technology for storing power in the form of gas. The Munich-based startup does that with microorganisms known as archaea. Doris Hafenbradl, CTO and Managing Director of Electrochaea, explains the value of the technology in our interview.

Munich Startup: Who are you and what does Electrochaea do? Please introduce yourselves!

Doris Hafenbradl, Electrochaea: We are Mich Hein and Doris Hafenbradl, and together we run Electrochaea. Mich was one of the founders of the company. I joined in 2015 and am the CTO. We had already worked together for a number of years in research, science clusters and various companies at the management level. Mich has his PhD in plant physiology and analytical chemistry – so he’s an expert when it comes to all of the chemical and physiological processes in plants. On top of that, Mich has founded many companies and made them a success. I have my PhD in microbiology and specialize in archaea, which are extremely important microorganisms for us. Before joining Electrochaea, I developed ideas from the lab to the product for various companies and also devised concepts for spin-outs. We met in Munich, because Electrochaea came from the US to Denmark and then to Germany. At that time, the funding opportunities for cleantechs like Electrochaea were better here in Germany. Why: storage solutions were needed for an increasing amount of power from the wind and sun. And that’s because just simply storing power only works over the short-term and in small amounts. Archaea, in contrast, can synthesize the power by electrolysis into a climate-neutral gas that can be stored in very large amounts and for very long periods of time. That is a tremendous advantage.

Munich Startup: What problem are you solving?

Doris Hafenbradl: Electrochaea is changing the nature of energy supply and solves a number of challenges. With our technology, we make it possible to store power from renewable energy sources, such as the sun, wind and water, and can do so for very long periods of time and in very large amounts – and that is particularly important when more climate-friendly power is produced than can be used. This allows us to balance supply and demand.

At the same time, we use emitted CO2, for example from factories and sewage treatment plants, and reuse it – the technical terms for that are carbon capture and utilization. This is where we use archaea in bioreactors. An example: Electrolysis is used to turn wind energy into hydrogen. This hydrogen plus the emitted CO2 from a factory are turned into climate-neutral gas – other terms for this gas are green gas, green methane and synthetic natural gas – an important climate-neutral replacement for natural gas. Fossil-based natural gas has to be extracted first, and that extraction often already causes environmental damage, and when it is burnt, additional CO2 is emitted. In contrast, CO2 recycling makes our gas much more climate-friendly and more sustainable, so it is an important component of a sustainable circular economy.

Another advantage is that we can use existing pipelines and storage facilities from the natural gas infrastructure by simply filling the huge gas networks with our climate-friendly gas. That is of particular interest to grid operators, because it allows us to make the grid much more green. Our gas can also be used for the further processing and production of fuels.

Electrochaea: “The reckoning is coming in the form of global warming”

Munich Startup: But that’s nothing out of the box!

Doris Hafenbradl: Archaea and their metabolic properties have actually been around for approximately 3.5 billion years. It doesn’t get much more out the box than that. All kidding aside, it was in the 1970s that archaea were discovered and described as having their own domain of life – before that, they were thought to be a kind of primordial bacteria. Since then, different species of archaea have been used in a broad range of applications, in medicine, in nanotechnology – but our technology is singular and unique and is extensively patented. Our team has successfully cultivated and selected archaea so they are particularly robust and efficient. It started in a lab with a five-liter container and we’ve now scaled it to such an extent that we want to produce more than 15 billion cubic feet of our gas every year by 2025.

Munich Startup: Was there a point when you nearly failed?

Doris Hafenbradl: For two or three years, we thought about whether our technology was perhaps before its time. If the costs caused by CO2 emission aren’t properly included in the equation, then fossil fuels like crude oil, natural gas and coal always look more affordable in the short term. But when the reckoning comes in the form of global warming, it will be felt by everyone and will be much worse than we can all imagine, unfortunately. Preventing that is exactly why we’ve stepped up. These kinds of calculations and comparisons, which we find extremely naive and ultimately irresponsible, are something we have to be able to endure.

Furthermore, our technology unites different energy sectors – traffic and transportation, heat, storage, power, renewable energy – and for this kind of cross-sectoral technology, although it is urgently needed, no corresponding modern legislature has been passed yet. In this case, it’s a matter of not burying your head in the sand, but rather of looking to see where it works now, who is innovative, who is thinking five, ten, fifteen years ahead – and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been so active in the US lately. We’re collaborating with SoCalGas, one of the largest gas providers in the US, and with Baker Hughes, one of the world’s largest energy technology companies.

“Munich and Bavaria are known and valued by pretty much everyone around the world”

Munich Startup: Where would you like to be in one year, and where in five years?

Doris Hafenbradl: We’re currently expanding our international business and will, as mentioned earlier, be producing roughly 15 billion cubic feet of our gas every year in collaboration with our partners by 2025.

Munich Startup: What do you think about Munich as a startup location?

Doris Hafenbradl: Munich and the surrounding area, including Planegg, are very attractive as a place to live and work. Especially when we as a growing company want to offer and fill many positions, the environment is a major advantage. And that’s because Munich and Bavaria are known and valued by pretty much everyone around the world.

Munich Startup: Risk or security?

Doris Hafenbradl: A certain degree of risk-taking is necessary so we progress personally and also as a society and species. It’s important to get out of your comfort zone if you want to create something new and overcome challenges. Anything else would mean stagnation – and for scientists, that’s not a good strategy for the future. A willingness to take risks, however, doesn’t mean you should blindly stumble into things. Preparation, strategy and experience are just as important.