Star Scientific is a small enterprise founded near the Australia city of Newcastle 25 years ago by Stephen Horvath, a nuclear engineer who wanted to commercialize nuclear fusion by using heavy hydrogen containing unstable sub-atomic particles called muons. His son Andrew spent a lot of time in his father’s laboratory and began tinkering with things on his own.
Those experiments led to the development of a catalyst that reacts with hydrogen and oxygen to create heat. Not just any heat, but 700º C (1292º F) of heat — hot enough to spin turbines that rely on superheated steam. Andrew Horvath calls it the HERO process, which stands for “hydrogen energy release optimizer.”
Let’s stop right there. This has all the earmarks of a scam. It’s one of those “too good to be true” stories that may actually be too good to be true. In fact, if it were not covered this week in an email to CleanTechnica from Bloomberg Green, we probably wouldn’t be giving it any coverage at all. But there are those who think the process has merit.
“Star Scientific technology can be scaled up and used for a variety of different applications, either direct energy generation through a turbine or just thermal heating,” Scott Donne, a professor at the School of Environmental and Life Science at the University of Newcastle tells Bloomberg Green. Newcastle, for those who have not had the pleasure of visiting this inviting seaside community about 40 miles north of Sydney, is one of the places where coal is exported from Australia to world markets 24 hours a day.
“Around where we are in Newcastle, there are four very large coal fired power stations that basically use steam to actually drive their turbines,” Donne says. “At the moment, it’s done with coal-fired power but it could conceivably be done with hydrogen using the existing infrastructure.”
Andrew Horvath adds, “We think there are a lot of opportunities in existing steam turbines that have some longevity,” citing the example of Japan where 70% of its turbines still have 40 years of life left. “Why would you throw them away? They’re already connected to the grid.” The HERO process could ultimately allow power plant operators that burn coal to retrofit them to run on steam heated by green hydrogen without having to construct a completely new plant.
The key, Andrew Horvath says, is that today the only way to make heat from hydrogen is to burn it. “We don’t burn hydrogen and that’s going to be the real key that we’ve been driving and people are taking notice of,” he says.
If Heat Is The Question, HERO Is The Answer
Horvath says HERO could bring emissions-free heat to virtually any commercial activity. He says Star Scientific is getting dozens of emails a day from prospective clients and the company is in talks with water treatment companies, brewers, dairy firms, meat packers, and desalination specialists. “There’s so much demand, the market’s coming to us,” he says. In January 2021, the company signed an agreement with the Philippines government to study retrofitting some of that country’s coal fired power plants.
A pilot project to test the system at a factory run by a local unit of Mars Inc. is awaiting regulatory approval, which Horvath expects will come in 2023. The technology “offers enormous potential across the food manufacturing industry,” Bill Heague, general manager of Mars Food Australia, tells Bloomberg Green. “Thermal energy is crucial to the business of cooking food and this technology has the capability to create limitless heat without any combustion and zero emissions.”
HERO Gets Multiple Awards
In 2020, HERO won the prestigious S&P Global Platts “Best New Energy Technology” award. In 2021, Star Scientific won tops honors in the New Economy category at 24th annual South By Southwest event in Texas. “The award is recognition of our ability to put renewable hydrogen into use with HERO today, to solve real energy challenges, and in particular the energy draw of the digital economy,” Horvath told Central Coast Community News.
“The most logical, viable pathway to decarbonizing our entire world is through technologies that address the heat and energy requirements across a product’s whole production process, and HERO does that. The beauty of HERO is its scalability. When partnered with technology such as the new generation of super-critical sCO2 turbines, HERO can be utilized for small scale, off the grid power generation purposes, particularly in regional and remote locations.” Then at SXSW 2022, the HERO technology again made it to the top of the awards list as a finalist in the Innovation category, according to LinkedIn.
HERO produces heat when a gaseous mix of hydrogen and oxygen flows over its patented catalytic coating, the LinkedIn post reveals. This flameless catalytic reaction generates the full range of industrial scale heat from 190° to over 1000° C and its only byproduct is laboratory-pure water. This globally patented clean energy technology is already securing both government and commercial contracts.
The 8,500 coal-fired power plants in the world producing nearly 25% of total electricity could transition to climate-friendly, hydrogen based HERO heat with no cost of conversion to the operator. Not only does it preserve existing infrastructure and jobs, it delivers affordable green electricity to the community.
Star Scientific is also developing applications for HERO for regional and local heating and cooling and is using the efficiency and high thermal output of HERO to create new desalination solutions for communities that are suffering from extended drought conditions. Power for data centers and new strategies for industrial and district heating are also being explored. By leveraging the global green bond market, Star Scientific’s innovative Heat As A Service business model removes economic barriers to power plant adoption and global technology distribution.
There are a couple of quibbles keen observers might have. First, green hydrogen is not especially abundant these days. Every time the word “hydrogen” enters a conversation, the fossil fuel crowd is quick to jump on the hydrogen bandwagon, as long as they can make it from methane, which is often mischaracterized at “natural gas,” even though it is no more “natural” than coal or oil. Any discussion of hydrogen must be careful to exclude sources that rely on methane, which the industry likes to disguise with the pleasant sounding moniker “blue hydrogen.” Baloney. Don’t fall for their lies.
Second, what we have here is a startling new process that relies on a secret catalyst that we know nothing about. There are no laboratory tests we can access, no peer reviewed studies we can reference, and no independent research we can examine. We have to take it on faith that the top secret catalyst Star Scientific says it discovered is not harmful to the environment and does not create carbon emissions in its making.
All we have to go on is the fact that a few trials have been approved and the happy talk from a local scientist who may or may not be unbiased. And those awards. They, more than anything, make the news about HERO technology something to get excited about.
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