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Meet the Sydney engineers turning brewery wastewater into fuel

Khushal Polepalle, Constantine Tsounis and Bijil Subhash of switcH2.

Meet the Sydney engineers turning brewery wastewater into fuel

Three entrepreneurs are set to help breweries save costs by allowing them to use their waste to produce clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

Meet the Sydney engineers turning brewery wastewater into fuel

When it comes to achieving sustainability goals, the beer industry may have found a friend in switcH2 – a Sydney-based start-up founded by chemical engineers on a mission to help breweries produce low-carbon beer, and change the way the industry sees its waste.

The three young founders – Khushal Polepalle, Bijil Subhash and Constantine Tsounis – met while studying at the University of New South Wales, where Tsounis and Subhash continued to PhDs in the Particles and Catalysis Research Group (PARTCAT). They’ve translated some of the innovations created by PARTCAT into industrial application, developing catalyst and electrolyser technology that can convert brewery wastewater into hydrogen, a clean-burning fuel. This hydrogen can then be used by breweries as a fuel for heating, transportation and electricity, drastically reducing brewery utility costs.

“Brewing beer is really carbon-intensive. And it uses so much electricity, it’s one of the highest operating costs of the brewery. Also breweries produce quite a lot of waste – for every litre of beer produced you have about five litres of wastewater produced at the same time,” explains Tsounis. “So if we could turn that wastewater into hydrogen energy and use that energy to power the brewery, we can lower their external energy requirements, we can lower their carbon footprint because hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel, and we can help deal with some of their waste treatment.”

Where conventional electrolysis to produce hydrogen uses pure water, switcH2 is able to replicate the same chemical reaction from organic-rich brewery wastewater. “In Australia, clean water is scarce, and in order to clean water and purify it to the level that you need for these electrolyser systems, it requires quite a lot of energy,” says Tsounis. “So we were looking at alternative ways that we could produce the same amount of hydrogen, lower the overall energy input and not use clean water.” At the same time, waste starts being viewed as a potentially valuable product.

The technology is scalable and non-invasive, designed for easy installation by working in conjunction with current wastewater treatment processes at breweries. switcH2 is currently working on finding a partner brewery to help them develop a pilot-scale plant. “There has been a lot of interest with companies who want to support us through that, but we just want to make sure that the first brewery or breweries that we go with are an ideal partner in the way that they can help us with pilot-scale R&D, but they also have the same vision as us in terms of how this can fit into the industry as a whole,” says Tsounis.

switcH2 has already attracted the attention of startup accelerator Startmate. The company was selected to participate in the Climate Cohort, an expansion of Startmate’s accelerator programme to fund and support startups addressing the climate crisis. “The overall vision is that we really want to shift these breweries and the FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] industry in general to work towards a circular and sustainable route, and by using switcH2 they can do that, but they can also do that in a profitable way,” explains Tsounis. “We allow them to continue doing what they do best in terms of brewing beer but by unlocking more value in terms of a sustainable outlook.”

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