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Chemistry start-ups on our radar in 2021

These 5 young chemistry-based firms could soon be improving the world

by Alex Scott
November 21, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 42


Agora Energy Technologies draws on waste CO2 to make a battery

Located on the campus of the University of British Columbia, Agora Energy Technologies has created two solutions with one product: a long-lasting redox flow battery that uses waste carbon dioxide to store electricity.

Redox batteries rely on reduction and oxidation reactions. When Agora’s batteries are charged with electricity, the CO2 is converted into what the firm calls a water-based, chemical energy-storage medium. The batteries provide electricity when the CO2-rich medium is released from tanks and allowed to flow continuously through a stack of electrochemical cells.

Agora is also developing an open-loop battery that consumes the CO2 in a second step to generate sodium carbonate, an industrial chemical known as soda ash.

Agora says its technology can be deployed at up to megawatt-hour-scale electricity storage and generation. One megawatt-hour is the power requirement for about 2,000 homes. Unlike with lithium-ion batteries, Agora’s redox batteries can discharge 100% without damaging the electrodes, the company says on its website. While lithium may cost thousands of dollars per metric ton, purified CO2 costs only about $100 per metric ton, keeping Agora’s technology cheap, the company says.

Agora was founded in 2017. CEO and cofounder Christina Gyenge was inspired to create a CO2-based battery by the atmosphere on Mars, which is 98% CO2.

Future Fields is using insects to make growth media for lab-grown meat

The Drosophila melanogaster fly.
Credit: Shutterstock
Future Fields uses a genetically modified Drosophila melanogaster fly to produce a growth factor for making substitute meat.

The race is on to develop meat substitutes that can take a slice out of the 7.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted every year from livestock. It’s the source of 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

One approach is to grow meat cells in a lab, but most growth media require fetal bovine serum, which is expensive and still requires cattle. Future Fields, founded in 2018 in Alberta, is developing growth media from a very different source.

The start-up inserts the gene for a certain growth factor into the genome of Drosophila melanogaster, a species of small fly. The cells of the insect then secrete the growth factor, and Future Fields breeds the insect. “Near the end of their lifespan, we humanely harvest the insects and purify the resulting growth factors,” the firm states on its website.

The approach is a scalable and sustainable alternative to fetal bovine serum, Future Fields claims.

The firm raised $2.2 million earlier this year from US venture capital firms to progress its technology. Also earlier this year, Future Fields made the first shipments of research quantities of its media, which it calls FGF2, to its customers.

Safi-Tech encapsulates solders for next-generation electronics

Encapsulated solder beads.
Credit: Safi-Tech
Safi-Tech's oxide nanoshell capsules enable solder to remain liquid even at ambient temperatures.

Founded in 2016 and located at Iowa State University Research Park, Safi-Tech has developed a no-heat solder for making electronics. Safi-Tech’s approach is to encapsulate a molten alloy—the solder—in an oxide nanoshell, which prevents nucleation of the alloy and enables the metal particles to remain liquid at ambient temperature, even though this is significantly below their freezing point.

Solder applied at ambient temperature using Safi-Tech’s encapsulation technology forms the same metallic interconnects as the current microelectronics industry standard solder, SAC305, which is processed at above 260 °C, the company says. When the solder is produced at scale, millions of encapsulated particles will be suspended in a carrier fluid and stored at room temperature, Safi-Tech estimates.

The start-up hopes its technology will not only reduce soldering energy costs but also allow solder to be applied to substrates, such as plastics, that would otherwise be melted by hot solder.

Safi-Tech has raised almost $4 million from grants, development funds, and industrial partners. The basic technology was developed at Iowa State in the lab of chemist Martin Thuo. Thuo and Safi-Tech president Ian Tevis are the company’s founders.

Spheryx has a new way to analyze suspensions

Analytical chemists interested in characterizing suspended particles might want to give Spheryx a try. The New York City–based firm has developed a technique, named Total Holographic Characterization, to provide a new window into suspensions at the subvisible level.

Spheryx’s desktop xSight machine uses a laser to illuminate suspensions, creating holograms of individual particles. Images of the holograms are recorded. Data generated can be used to help customers optimize formulations, ensure product quality, fine-tune manufacturing processes, and analyze samples, according to the firm.

Applications include detecting protein aggregation, monitoring protein-based therapeutics, characterizing polishing slurries during semiconductor processing, and monitoring wastewater.

Spheryx is helmed by Laura Philips, a former CEO of the biotech firm WellGen and a former fellow in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under Bill Clinton. She cofounded the company in 2014 with New York University physics professor David G. Grier and then-New York University postdoc Fook Chiong Cheong, who has expertise in holographic techniques.

Spheryx says it has already begun selling its xSight machines. The firm has raised $9 million to date from federal grants and private investors and plans to seek additional capital in the next 18 months to grow the business.

Xilinat makes xylitol from farm waste

A cake and Xilinat-branded xylitol.
Credit: Xilinat
Xilinat has developed a low-cost technology for making xylitol from corncobs.

Xilinat, a start-up based in Mexico City, thinks it has found all the ingredients for success with its fermentation process for making xylitol, a low-calorie sugar alternative, from agricultural waste. The firm was founded in 2018 by CEO Javier Larragoiti, a chemical engineer who developed the low-cost process in 2 years.

Xilinat has cultured yeast that generates the sweetener from corn waste, including the cobs. The company estimates its process is 40% cheaper than the standard method, which is based on the processing of xylose, known as wood sugar.

Xilinat’s process converts 7 metric tons (t) of corn cobs—for which Xilinat pays farmers $500—into 1 t of xylitol. Farmers in Mexico typically burn corn waste, a practice that creates 40% of Mexico’s rural carbon dioxide emissions, according to Xilinat.

During the pandemic, the firm was unable to continue using its labs, so it created a temporary lab at Larragoiti’s home.

Xilinat currently has capacity to produce 3 t per year of xylitol and aims to scale up production in the coming year. The firm is seeking funding to build a plant to supply what it sees as a growing market for the sugar substitute. Xilinat says it already has a waiting list of 3,000 prospective clients.


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