Inspiration can come from unlikely places—like the bottom of a bag of beef jerky, for instance.
Membrion, a Seattle-based cleantech startup, recently raised $2.2 million in new funding to give the company a boost along the path to commercialization. It engineers flexible membranes using silica gel, the same material in the small bags manufacturers place inside new shoes and bags of jerky and edible seaweed. These bags contain tiny moisture-absorbing beads that can help the products they’re packaged with stay dry.
The membranes Membrion is seeking to bring to the market can be fashioned in different ways depending on how they’ll be used, says John Plaza, the company’s CEO.
One potential application is water purification; filtering ions from a wastewater stream is done most effectively by using membranes with small pores—from 0.5 nanometers to 1.5 nanometers, Plaza says. The small-pore design is similar to that of the desiccants included in consumer product packaging, Membrion says.
In contrast, membranes with larger pores tend to be preferable for filtering large molecules, which occurs in the production of certain pharmaceuticals, Membrion says.
Other planned applications for the company’s membranes include fuel cells and large batteries for grid-scale energy storage. These “flow” batteries, like the one installed at a utility north of Seattle in early 2017, offer the promise of letting consumers use more renewable energy and reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
Greg Newbloom, Membrion’s chief technology officer, founded the startup in 2016 when he was working as a researcher at the University of Washington.
The company’s process for making its “ceramic” membranes involves taking a piece of nonwoven glass fiber—similar to the material many boats are made of—covering it with silica gel, and curing it in an acidic bath, Plaza says. “That basically acts in the same way heat does with a traditional ceramic, shrinks the silica into a hard ceramic surface, and allows us to control … the pore size,” he says.
Plaza, who joined Membrion in June 2017 and has more than a dozen years of experience in the renewable energy sector, said his company’s goal is to make its first commercial sale next year.
Membrion plans to sell its membranes to manufacturers of flow batteries, water purification systems, and other equipment, Plaza says. “They range from small companies to multi-billion dollar a year companies,” he says, describing the types of organizations Membrion is targeting with its products.
The materials the startup is developing fit into the category of “ion exchange membranes.” The market for these membranes is about $2.7 billion annually, Plaza says. Membrion argues that more utilities would purchase flow batteries, which are more environmentally friendly compared to some of the energy-storage methods that are popular today, if the cost of these batteries was lower. Plaza says he expects that once his company’s membranes become commercially available, they’ll cost about 70 percent less than the membranes available to companies today. He declined to estimate how much a manufacturer building a flow battery typically spends on ion exchange membranes, saying it can vary widely depending on the size of the equipment.
The round of seed financing the 10-person startup announced this week is a combination of equity and grant funding, Plaza says. The National Science Foundation provided about one-third of the total, with the rest coming from angel investors on the west coast, Membrion says.
The startup, which has raised a little over $3 million since launching, may raise another funding round in 2020 or later, Plaza says.