pH Matter’s Unique Carbon Nano-Material Will Power NASA

Sometimes it’s the “little” things (nano particles) that have the most disruptive impact on an industry. As we discovered in semiconductors and now evolving in energy solutions.

Such is the case with pH Matter, a Columbus-based startup that specializes in creating carbon nano-products to overcome giant challenges in energy.

pH Matter manufactures engineered electrode materials for fuel cell and battery applications and then processes the nano-carbon into electrodes and sells the electrodes to fuel cell and battery manufacturers.

pH Matter creates entirely new materials that cost less, last longer, and produce higher levels of energy

“We make engineered carbon material for fuel cell and battery electrodes. These are entirely new materials designed for these applications,” said Paul Matter, Ph.D. and pH Matter founder and CEO. “We add other atoms to the carbon to make it more functional—elements like nitrogen or boron, and tailor other properties important for electrode applications.”

Traditionally carbon used in electrodes is made from low-cost sources, such as coconut shells or graphite mined from the ground. It may be low cost, but engineered carbon material made specifically for these applications offers significant performance advantages. Engineered nano-carbon technology enables a battery to hold more energy or electricity per weight or mass.

As more renewable and alternative energy sources are being developed and brought to market, the demands for advanced energy storage systems to maximize these new technologies are accelerating, too. And that’s created significant opportunities for pH Matter.

For a startup that wants to move promising technologies from research and development into commercially viable products, it’s often not enough to design and prototype the product. In the case of its nano-carbon materials, pH Matter had to build equipment to make the products they design.

“We synthesize our carbon from scratch in reactors that we also designed and built,” Matter said. “We’ve developed a scalable process, that’s part of our expertise, to make large quantities of these materials at a lower cost.”

“Our carbon formation reactor technology enables us to fine tune the carbon properties to improve catalytic activity, conductivity, lithium storage capacity, and other engineering parameters such as porosity and chemical durability,” said Chris Holt, Vice President and Co-founder of pH Matter.

Strategic partnerships for battery and fuel cell applications

Strategic partnerships have been a core part of pH Matter’s business plan. The company licensed the carbon technology from The Ohio State University (OSU).

“We find strategic partners to work with that are developing batteries or fuel cells for specific applications,” Matter said. “It’s a process of going back and forth. It takes iterations to get things right.”

pH Matter works with the Ohio Federal Research Network (OFRN) to gain access to NASA and Air Force Centers in Ohio.  The company is working with partners through OFRN to develop high capacity batteries for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and other aerospace applications.

pH Matter, under a Phase II SBIR contract with the Department of Energy (DOE), is also working on a project for energy storage for renewable sources using a regenerative fuel cell that both stores and produces energy without the expensive precious metal electrodes currently used in regenerative fuel cells.  The technology could enable low-cost energy storage that would make connecting renewable energy to the grid more viable.

“We have materials that can do both electrolysis and fuel cell operation. That is unique and not available and led to our demo with DOE,” Matter said.  (Electrolysis is using electric current to produce a chemical reaction.)

The system could store energy when demands on the power grid are low and produce electricity when demand goes us. These cost-effective, distributed energy devices can augment the existing energy grid (an estimated 70 percent of transmission lines and transformers are 25 years old) and simplify energy grid design

pH Matter has also received as Phase II SBIR award from the U.S. Air Force to develop a portable 25-watt fuel cell to allow the Air Force to use equipment for extended periods when electricity isn’t available.

“It takes a lot of work to get these contracts and develop these relationships,” Matter said. “It’s not something I knew going into the company, but we’ve learned. You have to put yourself out there. It helps when you have funding. It legitimizes that what you are working on is a good idea, that someone has confidence in you.”

Learning the startup pivot

pH Matter had co-founders Matter and Christopher Holt from the beginning.

Both are engineering graduates from The Ohio State University, Matter from the Chemical Engineering department and Holt from the Materials Science and Engineering department.

“It helps to not be by yourself, to have someone to bounce ideas off, to get a second opinion,” Matter said. “It helps having someone with a different network than you. It opens up twice as many opportunities. We learn from each other; we complement each other.

“Initially we thought of ourselves as a catalyst company for automotive fuel cells,” said Matter.

Then Matter and Holt found a match between their carbon nano-materials and other markets.

“I felt like it was a pretty negative result when we were doing our testing and tried for about six months to get our materials to work for automotive fuel cells,” said Matter.

“When we realized that the materials by themselves just weren’t enough for that application, we broadened what we were doing and found that our materials worked well in many other types of batteries and fuel cells. That was a big opportunity,” he said.