Biogas production from industrial Wastewater

Published on 2024-05-03

Startup Story

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Hexem is pioneering biogas production from industrial wastewater, developing compact, modular reactors that transform waste into energy, enhancing sustainability and reducing costs in the food and beverage industry.


Pioneering Biogas Production from Industrial Wastewater

Hello everyone, I'm Michael Siegert, founder of Hexem, and today I'm excited to share our journey on pioneering high-performance biogas production from industrial wastewater. Our start originated with a vision to convert CO2 into methane using excess electricity. This idea was not just about energy creation but also about bridging renewable and conventional energy sources to future-proof our energy supplies.

However, during our initial market explorations, we encountered a significant hurdle. The utilities, although recognizing the potential of our technology, deemed it too nascent for immediate adoption. They advised us to return when the technology had matured. This feedback, while initially disheartening, was invaluable. It underscored the risk-averse nature of utility companies, which is crucial for maintaining stable energy grids. Faced with this challenge, we pivoted our technology towards another pressing issue—wastewater treatment. This sector was more receptive to innovative solutions, especially in scenarios with lower risks compared to energy grid failures. We identified a niche within the food and beverage industry, where high organic waste and energy costs presented unique opportunities. These industries, operating on razor-thin margins, faced significant financial burdens in managing wastewater.

Our solution? We developed specialized reactors that not only treat wastewater efficiently but also convert the organic materials into biogas, thus transforming a costly waste disposal process into an energy-generating activity. This approach not only alleviates the financial strain on businesses but also contributes to a more sustainable and energy-efficient operation. At Hexem, we are committed to making this technology a cornerstone for industries looking to enhance their sustainability practices while improving their bottom line.


Compact and Flexible Biogas Solutions 

Traditional biogas systems often require large-scale installations, which are not only costly but also demand significant space, a challenge especially in space-constrained places like Switzerland. At Hexem, we've developed a more compact and modular solution. Our technology uses portable container units that are pre-permitted, drastically reducing the need for space and easing regulatory burdens.

These containers offer flexibility through a pay-as-you-go model, ideal for industries with seasonal operations such as wineries or olive mills. This approach allows businesses to scale their wastewater treatment according to their actual needs, avoiding inefficiencies and reducing costs during off-peak times. This innovative system represents a significant shift from traditional methods, making biogas production more accessible and adaptable for businesses with varying wastewater treatment demands.


Enhancing Efficiency with Innovative Thermodynamic Technology

Diving deeper into how our reactor achieves its compact size while maintaining scalability and efficiency involves a blend of chemistry and innovative thermodynamics. Traditional biogas systems rely on organic matter decomposing to produce CO2, which is then converted into methane. Our system follows this basic biochemical pathway but introduces a critical enhancement that changes the game. We've integrated a thermodynamic tweak into the process, specifically manipulating the Gibbs energy equation which dictates energy changes in chemical reactions. By subtly adjusting the electrochemical potential within the reactor, we increase the energy available per molecule. This boost significantly accelerates the metabolism of the microbes involved in the methane production process.

What does this mean in practice? The microbes work faster and more efficiently, allowing the reactor to process organic waste more quickly. This increased rate of reaction enables us to design reactors that are not only smaller—about 20 times smaller than traditional setups—but also more efficient and adaptable to the needs of various industries. Our technology offers flexibility not commonly found in traditional systems. It adapitates easily to the varying wastewater outputs of seasonal businesses, providing them with a cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution to manage their waste and produce energy simultaneously. This approach not only meets the immediate needs of our clients but also aligns with broader environmental goals by reducing the overall ecological footprint of industrial waste treatment.


Financial Challenges of Green Tech Innovation

Navigating the green tech landscape, especially in sectors like water treatment, comes with significant hurdles. The most pressing challenge we've faced at Hexem is securing adequate funding. The green tech industry, characterized by its capital-intensive nature and slow market dynamics, typically doesn't attract traditional venture capital. These investors often look for quicker returns and are hesitant to engage in industries where financial returns are longer-term and inherently riskier.

In our case, the essential nature of water and energy underscores the strategic importance of our investments. Unlike consumer tech, where products may be desirable but not essential, our sector addresses fundamental human needs—making it a critical but challenging area for raising capital. To fund our operations, we've had to look beyond traditional venture capital to sources that understand and are committed to the long-term value of sustainable and essential services. Our strategy has involved targeting larger clients within industries like food and beverage, who feel the pinch of wastewater management costs and are thus more willing to invest in efficient solutions. Additionally, we've pursued grants and public funding, which are more aligned with the public-service nature of our work. Angel investors have also played a crucial role, providing funds not just for financial return but also to support our mission of reducing environmental impacts like CO2 emissions and water consumption.


Future Directions for Hexem

Looking ahead, Hexem is focusing on overcoming two main technical challenges. First, we aim to reduce the startup time for our reactors, which is currently too lengthy for effectively supporting seasonal businesses. This enhancement would allow us to offer more flexible and timely solutions to industries with variable operational periods. Second, we are navigating the regulatory landscape to ensure our system's output meets environmental standards, leveraging our ability to integrate with traditional systems when necessary.

These efforts are crucial as we continue to refine our technology and expand our impact, moving towards a more sustainable and efficient future in biogas production and wastewater treatment. 

About the author

Michael Siegert