By Eric Peterson | Mar 07, 2022
North Salt Lake, Utah
Solid oxide-based energy storage solutions
As director of alternate fuels and energy systems at the Idaho National Laboratory, Frost collaborated with his OxEon Energy co-founders, Dr. S. Elango Elangovan and Joseph Hartvigsen, on projects involving solid oxide on and off for three decades. "We've been working together since the late '90s in one way or another," says Frost.
The trio saw an opportunity to commercialize some technology and launched OxEon Energy with Frost as CEO, Hartvigsen as VP of engineering, and Elangovan as VP of development.
Essentially, that technology uses anaerobic digester gas to produce methane and carbon dioxide, separates the streams, and then splits methane into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which is in turn used to produce synthetic diesel.
"We're utilizing both parts of the anaerobic digester gas -- both the CO2 and the methane -- and we're coming out with a sustainable diesel fuel," says Frost. "Anybody that can burn diesel fuel can burn this, and it's considered to be a green fuel because it came from a waste product."
OxEon Energy's first project was with Kobe Steel of Japan. "We made a unit they used to get rid of a potentially hazardous gas stream at the end of one of their processes," says Frost. "They were kind enough to write us a multi-million-dollar contract and advance half of the money up front."
The self-funded company now has contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and other federal agencies. "We've made fairly good progress," says Frost.
OxEon manufactures at its 25,000-square-foot facility in North Salt Lake, leveraging the existing industrial base for numerous components. The company makes its core technology -- Solid Oxide Electrolysis Cells (SOECs) -- in-house, and integrates components from outside vendors into its systems. Most of its raw materials are sourced domestically, with the exception of proprietary ceramic powder. "We buy that from a vendor in Japan," says Frost.
The company's handiwork is currently operating on Mars aboard the Perseverance rover's MOXIE unit to prove the concept of oxygen production by solid oxide electrolysis on the Red Planet. "We have the follow-on contract," says Frost. "The unit on Mars extracts oxygen off of carbon dioxide, which is 95-plus percent of the Martian atmosphere, what there is of it."
He adds, "We'll probably build a much bigger unit that will be sent up to Mars in preparation for a manned mission in the 2030s. It'll provide oxygen for the astronauts to breathe and also for the oxidation of the fuel on the return trip. We also have the contract to produce fuel from water and CO2 using our electrolysis unit and a methanation unit we designed that will produce a hydrocarbon fuel -- methane -- that'll be used for the return trip from Mars by the astronauts."
On Earth, the company has worked with a wide range of businesses in an even wider range of industries. One customer, an off-the-grid winery, relies largely on solar power. "They want to get away from the batteries, because batteries are not a long-term answer to storing power," says Frost. "The same set of cells will electrolyze steam into hydrogen and oxygen, and it will use that same hydrogen and oxygen to generate power when the sun isn't available. It's a methodology for storing renewable power from when it's available to when it's needed."
The inputs and outputs vary from customer to customer. Some clients are making fuel, others are making fertilizer. "There are all sorts of applications," says Frost. "It's all about chemistry."
He highlights one with a client in Europe looking to upcycle municipal solid waste into sustainable aviation fuel: "Each one of us generates, here in the United States, a little more than four pounds a day of waste. Right now, most of that just goes into a landfill," he says. "We're working with a company that's going to take that solid waste, process it to get non-energy components out of it, and use the stuff that can be transformed into energy as a feedstock to a gasification unit."
Natural gas fields offer another vast market, adds Frost. "Each day around the world, there is several trillion cubic feet of natural gas that is just flared. They just burn it."
Especially with the emergence of carbon credits in some markets, the math pencils out for many producers to engage OxEon Energy, says Frost. "We can convert that into a synthetic mix of hydrocarbons, same as you'd have with petroleum, and they can export it right along with their oil. That cuts down on the pollution of the flared gas and also gives you an additional amount of funds from the additional hydrocarbons that you generate."
He adds, "It takes about 10,000 standard cubic feet of natural gas to make a barrel, and some of these places are flaring millions of standard cubic feet per day."
Challenges: "It's the standard challenges that any small company faces," says Frost.
Scaling up to bring solid oxide solutions to the mass market is at the top of the list: "We've been sort of a custom builder to meet unique requirements to date. We're trying to get into a more mass-market situation with things like the reformer and the flare gas."
The second big challenge is "finding the employees to be able to do that," he adds.
Opportunities: "The big thing we see is storing renewable energy," says Frost. "Batteries have inherent limitations in our eyes. The battery manufacturers might argue with that, but from our standpoint, we can store just about any amount of renewable energy you want. . . . You can generate energy, store it as hydrogen, and ship it anywhere you need it."
Other opportunities include "utilization of wastes that would otherwise not serve any useful purpose, such as the flare gas or the municipal solid waste that's going into landfills," he adds. "The world runs on energy. We've built the company around the idea of servicing that energy market, but servicing it in a way that services the environment at the same time."
The founders' reputations with top research institutions and national labs goes a long way. "We're pretty well-known in the field of solid oxide," says Frost. "It's a relatively small fraternity of personnel."
Needs: "Really good technicians," says Frost. "We've got a good strong engineering staff that we've hired and built around, but getting good, solid technicians that can implement those plans and get them done without having to tie our engineers up doing work that could be done by people with less rigorous academic training."