Polaris Venture Partners Backing MIT Chemist’s “Solar Fuel” Startup

(Update: this story was updated at 10:15 a.m. today with additional financial information on Sun Catalytix.)

Yes, that’s solar fuel. MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera has been widely lauded for developing a breakthrough technology that could harness the energy of the sun to provide a clean source of fuel. Xconomy has now learned that Polaris Venture Partners is backing a young startup called Sun Catalytix, which Nocera founded to commercialize his discovery.

Polaris general partner Amir Nashat is in charge of the venture firm’s interest in Sun Catalytix, which was quietly formed last year and is operating in the Boston area, according to sources close to the firm. Nashat declined to comment on the company, saying that its founders have decided not to talk to the press about the stealthy operation at this time. (Nashat himself got his doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT, though most of the Polaris investments he’s overseen in the past were in biotech startups.) Sun Catalytix has completed a $700,000 seed round of financing, according to the VentureExpert database, cited by news website PE Hub after Xconomy posted its story on Sun Catalytix this morning.

Nocera has gained notoriety for his technology that offers a novel way to utilize solar energy and could be used to make hydrogen gas with two plentiful and nonpolluting resources: sunlight and water. And it bodes well for the commercial prospects of Nocera’s technology that a top-tier venture firm like Waltham, MA-based Polaris has stepped in to back Sun Catalytix. But by all accounts, there are technical hurdles to clear before Nocera’s solar fuel technology is ready for commercial use. Also, market factors such as the economic meltdown have slowed growth in the solar energy market and created barriers for adopting new solar technologies, an industry expert says.

Nocera’s exciting discovery is a catalyst that, according to MIT, consists of an electrode placed in water containing cobalt and phosphate. MIT explains that when electricity from any source enters the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate create a film over the electrode, forming a catalyst that separates oxygen gas from the water and leaves behind hydrogen molecules. Then a platinum catalyst is used to convert the hydrogen molecules into hydrogen gas, which could power fuel cells and further efforts to lower global dependence on petroleum-based fuels. The vision is to use sunlight to enable these chemical reactions, creating a new way to tap solar power for energy.

As of last summer, commercializing the technology depended on overcoming at least a couple of technical challenges, one of which is the development of a material that can absorb solar energy to enable the water-splitting reaction. Another is finding a metal cheaper than the platinum to convert hydrogen molecules into hydrogen gas, according to a July 2008 Technology Review story. In the same article, though, German chemist Karsten Meyer, of Friedrich Alexander University, said: “…this is probably the most important single [solar energy] discovery of the century.”

Still, Sun Catalytix is not without competition. For several year, Maynard, MA-based Nanoptek has been working to commercialize its own catalyst to break apart water molecules and produce hydrogen gas. Nanoptek’s catalyst consists of titanium dioxide and “nano-structures” (according to its website), and is also intended to use energy from the sun to complete its water-splitting reaction. The company has kept a low profile since it announced a $4.7 million first-round financing in January 2008, and company CEO John Guerra told me that the company isn’t talking publicly about its operations or technology.

The formation of Sun Catalytix comes at a difficult time for solar energy startups, several of which, such as Evergreen Solar, Konarka Technologies, and Wakonda Technologies, call the Boston area home. The global market for solar energy and technology is expected to fall from $36 billion in 2008 to an estimated $29 billion this year, according to a February report by Boston-based Lux Research. The decline is due in large part to the global financial crisis, lower demand for traditional photovoltaic solar cells, and a decrease in prices for this technology, Lux solar energy analyst Johanna Schmidtke says. At the same time, market worries among solar consumers have stunted adoption of newer solar products such as cadium-telluride-based cells and thin film solar cells.

These dynamics can spell trouble for young firms with new technologies trying to gain a foothold in the solar energy market. “It’s definitely a market barrier,” Schmidtke says. “We’ve heard of companies that are having significant trouble at the… research and development level.”

Still, there’s hope for Sun Catalytix and other startups in the early stages of developing solar technologies. The solar energy market will begin to recover in 2010 and grow to a whopping $70 billion by 2013, according to Lux. This is also good news for Polaris-backed startups such as Beverly, MA-based SiOnyx, which is developing “black silicon” to make more efficient photovoltaic cells and semiconductors, and 1366 Technologies, a Lexington, MA-based firm that aims to reduce the cost of producing multicrystalline PV cells.

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8 responses to “Polaris Venture Partners Backing MIT Chemist’s “Solar Fuel” Startup”

  1. Arthur Mann says:

    Haven’t these guys heard of Blacklight Power?
    http://www.blacklightpower.com

  2. I am very much interested in this project. Is there some way you can keep me informed of progress?

  3. Gallium and aluminum pellets will extract Hydrogen from water. It appears to me, that this is the other one-half of your problem to get the Hydrogen in usable form. If this interests you and you are not aware of this, I will send you information about if you lke. Thanks, Joe L. Ogan

  4. I hadn’t heard of this. Very interesting development. Solar technologies seem to be moving that fast that it’s hard to keep up.