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Ionomr works to perfect building block for the hydrogen economy

Ion exchange materials can also be used for carbon capture, use and sequestration

The manufacturing of Ionomr's ion exchange membrane, which has uses in hydrogen fuel and carbon capture. (Courtesy Ionomr Innovations Inc.)

The CEO of Vancouver-based Ionomr Innovations Inc. says its ion exchange materials can play a critical role laying the foundation for a more sustainable economy in green hydrogen production and use, and in carbon capture technology.

The company develops, manufactures and sells ion exchange materials in the form of polymers and films. These materials either block or permit the transmission of ions of positive or negative charges as part of an electrochemical process.

This reaction can either help produce hydrogen fuel or be utilized in hydrogen fuel cells. The ion exchange materials can also be used to capture carbon dioxide to make synthetic fuels, reducing the need for more fossil fuel extraction.

“If you put it in an analogy, we make very sophisticated cement that allows our customers to build very complex and innovative buildings that are environmentally friendly and green,” Ionomr CEO Bill Haberlin said in an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada.

Included multiple times on the Global Cleantech 100 list and named one of the 50 Fastest-Growing Sustainable Companies in Canada by Corporate Knights, Ionomr is quickly becoming one of Canada’s most recognizable sustainability startups.

From a lab to sustainability standout

Co-founded by Simon Fraser University electrochemists Benjamin Britton and Steven Holdcroft in 2018, Ionomr is based on Britton’s PhD research on electrochemistry as he sought ways to free the world of per- and polyfluorinated substances. Abbreviated as PFAS and called "forever chemicals" due to their durability, PFAS have raised alarms over their potential health risks, such as increasing the risk of cancer.

Britton developed a material made from hydrocarbon polymers that are free of PFAS, infinitely recyclable and have minimal impact on the environment, according to the company.

Encouraged by the material, Haberlin said Britton put forward the business case for his idea and submitted a licensing agreement to Simon Fraser University with his mentor Jim Derbyshire, a serial entrepreneur.

Seed funding was then raised, and Haberlin joined shortly after Ionomr was founded to lead its go-to-market strategy.

Ionomr’s current offerings

Programmed at the polymer level to filter out or allow positive or negative ions to flow through, the company’s ion exchange materials come in two forms, according to Haberlin:

  • Aemion, used in alkaline environments; and
  • Pemion, for acidic environments.

Both can be used in electrolysis, hydrogen fuel cells and in converting carbon dioxide to synthetic fuels.

“We at Ionomr are unique in that we have both an anion and cation material under the same roof. Most companies either ply a trade in anion or cation materials,” he said.

“So we have the ability to serve the here and now as well as being able to provide materials for second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-generation type platforms in the hydrogen space as the marketplace evolves, grows, scales.”

Uses for Ionomr’s ion exchange materials

The company’s materials “sit in the heart and lungs of electrochemical solutions that allow for the decarbonization of the energy sources on the planet,” Haberlin said.

Ionomr’s current focus is on aiding the production of green hydrogen.

“We're all about driving that clean, highly efficient, cost-effective op ex (operating expense) and cap ex (capital expenditure) solutions to produce hydrogen and then an efficient, clean, cost-effective way to use that hydrogen in terms of mobility and stationary applications.”

The potential to decarbonize heavy transportation with hydrogen fuel is a point of emphasis for Haberlin. He specifically listed long-haul trucking, rail, aviation and buses; the heavy-duty segment of the market “where decarbonization abatement is the most difficult.”

Haberlin could not disclose names, but said Ionomr has engagements with “some of the largest mobility OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and some of the largest energy system producers in the world."

Other than hydrogen, Ionomr’s material can also be used for carbon capture, use and sequestration. By subjecting carbon dioxide to electrolysis, byproducts are created that can be converted into synthetic fuels to make carbon-neutral plastics.

Ionomr’s plan for the future

The company currently has over 50 employees and has raised almost $50 million in equity. It has a 10,000-square-foot office on the University of British Columbia campus and two in Rochester, N.Y.: a 10,000-square-foot hydrogen test lab and a 4,000-square-foot wet lab.

Ionomr is earning some revenue by selling its film and ion exchange materials to OEM integrators, Haberlin said.

Its most recent funding round closed in December 2023 with US$20 million led by NGIF Cleantech Ventures and Pallasite Ventures.

The CEO’s plan for the next three to four years is to scale up and drive the maturity of Ionomr’s materials while reducing its costs for “broad and widespread adoption of electrochemical solutions to allow the planet to decouple itself from fossil fuels.”

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