Sustainability and carbon reduction are key focus areas of the chemical industry. Many countries and companies have Net Zero targets to support a more sustainable future, including decarbonization. Innovation is critical. One of the key innovators in decarbonization is Syzygy Plasmonics and its co-founder Trevor Best.
In this episode, Victoria Meyer speaks with Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics about the importance of decarbonization and the innovations that Syzygy is bringing to the chemical industry.
Victoria and Trevor discuss: Syzygy’s founding from technology-based at Rice University, the importance of hydrogen, the role of light and energy in the chemical industry. And, the focus on green chemical manufacturing.
This episode of The Chemical Show is packed with valuable information that you don’t want to miss. So make sure to listen to this podcast. Tune in!
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Lighting the Path to Decarbonization with Trevor Best
Today, I am speaking with Trevor Best, who is the co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics. Syzygy is a technology startup that’s using a breakthrough plasmonic science developed at Rice University to perform chemical reactions. They’re developing chemical reactors that use light and change the energy profile and the CapEx profile of typical chemical reactors. So we’re going to be talking with Trevor all about this, about being in a startup, and about how they’re getting to commercialization, etc. Trevor, welcome to The Chemical Show.
It is fantastic to be here, Victoria. Thank you so much for having us.
I’m delighted to have you here. What’s your origin story? How did you get started with chemicals? And how did you turn your focus to green chemical manufacturing in what you’re doing today?
In 2013, I started trying to get something off the ground and just wanted to do good. The first one was a nonprofit called H2 Open Source. As things went on, we tried other things and focused on water purification. That was a company called meta bios. And that was where I met my co-founder, Dr. Suman Khatiwada. Then, when Suman and I first paired up, we were working together at Baker Hughes in their R&D division. We had decided that we were going to change the oil and gas industry and push it towards green energy from the inside out.
This was in 2015 or so. It was a bit ahead of its time. And we realized that if we were going to help to enable an energy transition or something, we need to do something really bold. So Dr. Khatiwada and I actually went on a technology search. We were looking at a lot of different technologies coming out of different universities like MIT or Stanford. In late 2016, I think August 2016, the two professors, Professor Naomi Hollis and Professor Peter Nordlander are our co-founders at Rice University released their first paper on the plasmonic antenna reactor photocatalysts.
Dr. Khatiwada and I are very inquisitive people. So we went and started talking to them once a week about the technology and doing diligence on it. When they started telling us about some of the numbers that they were achieving, we started comparing that against traditional catalysis, especially traditional photocatalysis. We see that this thing is outperforming what had been done in the past and what’s done in industry today by orders of magnitude. We realized that there was something here.
In 2017, we decided to leave our jobs at Baker Hughes and go all in on the company. Dr. Khatiwada and I cashed in our life savings and did the whole startup launch, like two guys and a basement. With the help of the professors from Rice, and a number of other investors around town, we got it off the ground, and the company formally opened its doors just a week from now. So it was February 5, 2018. So in one week, we’ll have our five-year anniversary.
That’s pretty amazing. Five years from formation to where you are today is actually pretty quick in the startup world, especially technology startups.
We are moving blazing fast. How do we get into chemicals? It was a bit of a fortuitous thing. We were looking at all different kinds of things. Like solar panels, we were looking at different kinds of thermoelectric materials and other things that can help enable the energy transition. We just picked this one not knowing much about chemistry.
When we started really digging in and doing the diligence and looking at what the future would look like, we saw the importance of hydrogen at that time. If we’re actually going to decarbonize, hydrogen has to happen at some point. This tech we found could potentially change the fundamentals and change the baseline for these major chemical reactions that the planet Earth needs. Let’s start with hydrogen because that’ll happen sometime. Then, we call that shot in late 2017. I wouldn’t say it was a dog. It was already a $100-billion industry.
Decarbonization: There's a market there today, there's a huge scale market, and there are healthy small-scale market opportunities for fuel cell vehicles and opportunities for energy and feedstock for low carbon operations. We have to start with hydrogen.
It was kind of an old-school industry and it was really viewed as a utility for a very long time.
Very much so.
Trevor, I don’t personally just go out and look at technology applications and patents and come up with these things. So it takes somebody special to want to do that. Were you working in a really technical space when you were at Baker Hughes? Baker Hughes does a lot, obviously, with oilfield chemicals and chemistry and stuff. So this is also a natural fit to be looking at chemicals based on your experience at Baker Hughes. Or, was it really just this leap into the bigger picture doing something new?
It wasn’t that big of a leap. As I said, both Dr. Khatiwada and I worked in the R&D division. I was actually the quality manager for the invention process. I oversaw how the process by which we get ideas out of people’s heads and onto paper and make one of the labs and then the export to supply chain piece was where a lot of problems would crop up. As the quality manager for that process, I would go in and fix it when it broke down. I had this really macro-level view of how R&D was done and how projects were run.
My co-founder, Dr. Khatiwada, is Ph.D. in nanoengineering from Rice University. He was one of the material scientists. When writing the patents, he understands what happens at the atomic level with these things. In my role, I also got quite technical. I needed to know how the equipment worked to understand how to manage it. We were both pretty technical starting out. A lot of the things that happen behind chemical engineering are metallurgy and mechanical design and energy transfer and the scientific piece of catalysis, especially photocatalysis.
That’s why the two professors from Rice University, Professor Hollis and Nordland are also co-founders because they are world-renowned plasmonics experts. We’ve hired people out of their lab, like Hossein Robatjazi. He’s over our catalyst development now. We worked with him way back on day two, and he was part of the Hollis lab. As we’ve grown, he left the Hollis lab and joined us. Our first hire was a Ph.D. chemical engineer, Dr. Shreya Shah. She really knows chemical engineering. So really from the get-go, we had a pretty strong technical basis.
And yet, you’ve had to become a very commercial person in order to lead this organization forward.
Basically, the deal between Suman and I is he makes the reactor work and I bring in the customers and the money. I did a lot of public speaking. When I was younger, I used to do debate, theater, and stuff like that. So I take to it naturally. I also had a Six Sigma Black Belt in Baker. I would have to get into organizational architecture, and why processes break down. And that’s a pretty broad toolkit to draw from.
That’s awesome. Let’s get into Syzygy. You mentioned earlier where it started. What is it and where is it today? Maybe you can even just start with the name. What do Syzygy and plasmonics mean?
Starting with the name Syzygy, I know it’s a very funny name. But it’s serious science. It’s a real English word. If you can land it in Scrabble, you basically win! What it means is the alignment of three planetary bodies in a straight line. A really good example is an eclipse. So when the sun, the moon, and the Earth line up during an eclipse, that is a syzygy. It could be Earth, Saturn, and Jupiter, but anytime three planetary bodies line up. For us, it means the alignment of three things that are shaping the future: energy, technology, and sustainability, where those three things line up, you get the syzygy.The method of directly delivering energy to the catalyst is very different from how people do it today. Click To Tweet
Cool! And then what is plasmonics?
Plasmonics is a field of science and this is a subset of nanophotonics. Nanophotonics studies the interaction of light and matters at the nanoscales. Then, plasmonics refers to some metallic or metal, like aluminum, copper, silver, and gold are the plasmonic materials. When you hit them with light, especially when you make these nanoparticles out of them, and you hit them with light, they will form what is called plasma on their surface.
Basically, it catches the photon and all the electrons on the outside of that metal that get excited and start jumping around. We can use those to do work. That plasmonic effect is what we are using to drive chemistry. It can do other things in chemistry. For the professors, they also have another company called Nanospectra and they’re using the plasmonic effect. These nanoparticles actually fight cancer. They recently treated a local weatherman who suffers from cancer not too long ago and it was a success, but they kept developing it and got into catalysis.
And now, we are using plasmonics to drive catalysis in a new way. This is pretty much like cutting-edge science. It wasn’t really known to many how to do this well until the past couple of years, and the professors made this breakthrough. Basically, if you build these structures in some way, you may find out that the results are not that exciting. But if you build them in a very specific way, suddenly there’s just this exponential increase in a lot of the metrics that matter for chemical engineering.
The chemical industry does not typically embrace cutting-edge very easily. You’ve started Syzygy about five years ago. You’re obviously rapidly developing, you’ve got some partnering, and yet, let’s be honest, this is not an industry that wants cutting-edge. They want tried and true improvements. So how are you resolving that?
We are resolving that with a tremendous amount of effort. I think the key for us has been radical transparency. When we think about our field of science, plasmonic catalysis is a subset of photocatalysis. It is not a field of science that has worked historically for the chemical industry. This is not for lack of trying. In fact, everyone we meet has or knows someone who did photocatalysis, whenever they were in academia or worked on some photocatalysis project with an energy major or world government. It has never really panned out.
Now that we’re getting some really impressive results, we’ve managed to get over that by basically bringing people out to the lab. Just in a room right over there, we have a reactor museum, where we have all the versions of the reactor since we started the company. You can actually see how we’ve progressed and you can see pretty clearly, how it works. That kind of transparency about what is happening on the inside, coupled with the results we’re getting has been able to win people over. I think that the past couple of years, the push of the energy transition and certainty about the future have also made everyone a little bit more risk-tolerant. So if we tried to do this a decade ago, I don’t know, it would have been tough.
I think the industry wasn’t ready a decade ago.. As you say, that energy transition, the focus on sustainability, net-zero, etc., has driven a race to innovation and the acceptance of new technologies in ways that we haven’t seen in the past several decades.
Let’s get into a little bit of the actual technology and maybe your objectives with it. At the end of the day, before we got on and hit the record button, you were really describing Syzygy as a chemical equipment company. I think you have a better way of saying that, but where is Syzygy going and what is the vision and the future of Syzygy?
We are a chemical process licensor. If you want to think of companies that are similar to us, it would be Topsoe, Lummus Technology, and Honeywell UOP. You develop the core tech for making a chemical transformation happen. Then, you have to partner with a lot of people like the operators, other components of suppliers, and things like that to actually deliver. So we make the chemical reactor, and we help to design the package and the interface that goes around it. We license that technology to people for them to use. They pay us a little bit of money for the license, and they also buy the reactors and the catalysts from us.
The reactors are glass. So the big deal is that it’s using lights. Is it using ambient light? Is it using focus light? How does that part work?
There is a big piece of glass inside the reactor. So if you were looking at it from the outside, it’s not like a crystal castle with a solid glass structure. The outside is metal. We’re able to generally build low-cost materials since we operate in a different way. We don’t need quite the pressure-temperature that the others do. We have the light sources, we’re using LEDs today, and we’ve been experimenting with a lot of other interesting light sources to energize the catalyst.
Between the light source and the catalyst list, you need a piece of transparent material. Right now we’re using quartz. That will let the light through to interact with the catalysts. It’s also pretty interesting because those materials are generally pretty good insulators. They’re good at keeping energy in. The method of directly delivering energy to the catalyst is very different from how people do it today. Just to give people a picture in their heads. You can imagine a quartz tube. It’s pretty thick. We’re talking like multiple inches, and it’s about the size of a person and that is the heart of our reactor.
It’s different than I had personally envisioned it being. That’s good to know.
You guys are starting with hydrogen. It’s a very large market and has large assets. As you noted earlier, it had been a pretty sleepy market. It’s viewed as an old-school technology. But it’s also technology that has a high energy usage with high large-scale options. Why did you start with hydrogen?
Hydrogen was a pretty clear choice from the beginning. We started the company to decarbonize and basically prevent combustion, and allow these operations to run on renewables. When we’re looking at how we help decarbonize and we’re doing the math around, I think people are starting to get a lot more familiar with this. It’s like the LCAs and lifecycle assessments for carbon intensity. When we did these back in 2017, we saw the importance of hydrogen to a future clean economy.
Decarbonization: We're seeing the importance of hydrogen to a future clean economy. We would love to run everything on electrons, and renewable electricity, but you can't have a society without molecules and molecular energy and hydro-critical feedstock. It's an energy source.
It did not just happen. We would love to run everything on electrons, and renewable electricity, but you can’t have a society without molecules and molecular energy and hydro-critical feedstock. It’s an energy source. So just from the market case for it, there’s a market there today. There’s a huge scale market. There are healthy small-scale market opportunities for fuel cell vehicles, opportunities for energy, and feedstock for low-carbon operations. We have to start with hydrogen.
How do you get to scale? Obviously, with new technology, you’re starting relatively small. How do you get to a scale that makes an impact, especially when you think about hydrogen as being such a large volume market?
Scaling has been fun. As we took it out of Rice University, we started being very tiny. We’re talking about a millimeter-sized catalyst pellet that is making milligrams of hydrogen per day. You made a couple of jumps. Right now, we’re operating at a scale that can max out about 20 kilograms of hydrogen per day. The reactors are a little bigger than my head. We’re in the process of building out that first one that is around the size of a person and that one will make about 200 kilograms per day. That one is called the Rigel reactor. It’s the name of our product.
So Rigel is about 200 kilograms of hydrogen per day. Then you put multiple of those units together into reactor banks. So let’s say you have five together that do one ton of hydrogen, 10 together would do two tons. And then it is just how many banks do you need for your application? So similar to the same way that electrolyzers scale, batteries scale, or solar panels scale, like cellular modular methodology, it’s just that our cell. A Rigel reactor is like a cell. It’s just really big.
That makes sense. The end game is a modular system in that you put together as many pieces as you need. I know that per your R&D roadmap, 2023 is the year of commercialization, which is always a big pivot point with startup companies, as you move from really this development and very technical focus into commercialization. What does commercialization mean? What does it look like for Syzygy?
This is probably the biggest transition we’re gonna have to go through as a company. Up until this time, we have been this R&D company, and you’re managing everything for eureka. And when you’re managing the company, so that someone inside can achieve a eureka moment, and come up with a new design that improves the metrics, you have to manage in a certain way. Then, now we’re no longer managing for eureka, we know what to do to hit the numbers we need to be disruptive. But now it’s like an execution.
There are timelines, project planning, budgeting, and all these fun traditional company things. So we’re doing a lot of initiatives to push the company and change it from an R&D company to a product-oriented company. We’re hiring a lot of people who have a lot of experience in the industry with different functions. We’re really growing out the other groups like our operations, HR, accounting, sales groups, etc., bringing them all in and indoctrinating what it means to be part of Syzygy.
That is all preceding the actual technology delivery. Right now, we’re building that first commercial unit, that 200-kilogram-per-day reactor. We’re gonna test it at our facility this year, and then we get to deliver it to customers who have signed agreements with us. So test it and get a learning cycle and deliver it to customers. Let them test it. See how it works. Those customer tests should be happening around the end of the year. Then, everybody gets to see the data.
Things are looking good. We level up again, and we start getting orders for the banks. Multiple of these together, where we actually start producing at scale. So the timeline, testing a single reactor, one of those Rigels this year at our facility, and then it kind of relocated next year in the reactor bank at customer locations. Then 2025, we can actually start big processes for building a whole refinery of a giant scale facility out of our tech. When talking about moving fast, it is really moving fast for new tech in his industry.
Other companies may have taken them a couple of years or decades before they were able to reach success. So I think you’re right, Trevor. I think you guys are moving blazing fast.
You started talking about customers. Who are your target customers? When you think about selling your technology, and selling these reactors and the components that go along with them, who are you targeting?
I’m going to talk in general, and then I’m going to talk about some of our specific projects. Then, I’d love to talk about our customer base and strategic investors who have come in and will probably be our initial customer base. In general, in the market, we’re targeting large energy companies and operators. We can do many different chemical reactions, we can do hydrogen from ammonia, we do hydrogen from methane, and we can do CO2 to fuel. These are all very important reactions for a clean-energy future.
Those operators, Chevron, BP, Equinor, and many others, are the ones who are most interested in these reactions. They make fuels and methanol. There are some other interesting parties, like vehicle manufacturers, including Toyota that’s looking at hydrogen vehicles, and we’re also very involved with Sumitomo Corporation, Lotte, and those industries that are more trading companies where they have sections that play in energy, but they’re much more diversified. It’s a very broad stroke.
The reason being is that to get one of these big projects done, you need a lot of parties. You need engineering partners, you need operators, you need off-takers, you need capital providers, you need government support, and you need so many people involved to get one of these projects done. So we’re making a lot of effort to bring them all to the table. We bring our piece and then others bring each of their pieces. We have three projects that we have ongoing right now. The first one we announced in August of last year. That is with Lotte Chemical in South Korea.
We will be deploying our technology with Lotte and also in conjunction with Sumitomo Corporation in Busan, South Korea. This is for ammonia splitting. They envision bringing in lots of clean energy in the form of ammonia to South Korea and using our technology to split it and get the hydrogen back out. The next project was actually just announced two days ago. This is a CO2 to fuels project and it is sponsored by Sumitomo again and also Equinor. Under this project, we’re taking in CO2 and methane, we are turning those into some gas, and feeding them to a fischer-tropsch reactor.
Ultimately, it’s making sustainable fuels with the end goal to be a pathway to make SAF at a very reasonable cost. That reaction is especially exciting because it has the potential to compete head to head with traditional fossil fuels, like traditional gasoline, or traditional jet fuel, to compete with it on price while having a much lower carbon intensity. Then, the third object is ammonia splitting. It’s similar to the project in South Korea. This one is in California. We have not done any press on that and probably won’t. But we do have a project looking at California and that energy importing in the form of ammonia and then turning it back into hydrogen for different applications.Treat your team well, surround yourself with good people, and you will go far. Click To Tweet
Obviously, partnering is really critical in this space. It seems like you’ve found some really good partners to work with. What makes a good partner for you? What makes Syzygy a good partner? Obviously, there’s always an array of companies and individuals you can partner with. What’s been critical to you, as you’ve progressed with that?
We’re very concerned with scope and scale. How big of a partner can they be? Someone who can deploy a meaningful amount of reactors that actually impact meaningful change in terms of carbon emissions. First and foremost, after that, I’d say, it’s a willingness to change. Are they actually serious about this? Do they actually want to make the transition happen? I think those are the two primary ones. You can look at our current partner base and we’ve done quite well. We have picked up Equinor, Chevron, BP, Saudi Aramco, Toyota, Lotte Chemicals, Sumitomo, and Pan American Energy.
There are lots of very committed partners. When you talk about the energy companies, there’s a whole thing like, “Is the energy transition really going to happen?” One of the things with this group is that they actually gave us access to pretty high up in the organization, and we got to have conversations and they have all decided that something is going to happen. The energy transition is going to happen. They’re going to decarbonize, and they are all looking at which technologies can I actually do it. So it’s very much like, can they deploy at scale? Are they actually going to do it our main criteria? And we feel that we’ve done pretty well.
One of the other questions I had for you is really about scale and speed. You’ve touched on this speed, and you guys are moving really quickly to get to a commercial platform. What lessons are you taking from other technologies or digital companies? That seems to have mastered speed and scalability. If we look at Silicon Valley, they would at least have us believe everything’s fast. What lessons have you taken from that, and how have you applied them to what your company is doing?
I love other founders, and I talk to a lot of other founders. Some are very successful, and some are at an earlier stage than us. Especially, when talking about software in Silicon Valley, a lot of those companies can scale in ways and at speeds that I just don’t know if it’s possible for a company like ours to scale. I’ll talk about some of the key learning here in a second. But when you’re looking at chemical technology, like ours, versus a software company, if a software company has a critical failure, they delete some congresswoman’s or congressman’s Twitter account. And sure, they’re upset, but it’s not that bad. If we have a critical failure, it is pretty serious. We can’t move too fast.
We have to make sure that we have a lot of rigor and a lot of checks and balances in place as we get to larger scales. It takes time. Even if we’re working with governments on permitting, especially with the new technology that hasn’t been seen before, that doesn’t move as fast as you would like it to. But I think that some of the key learnings are building for the next step. Wherever you’re at, always be building for what comes next. Because if you wait until you become 100%. Ready, if you’ve done A and now you raise money, and then you’re supposed to go do B, start building for B before you’ve got the money raised.
Otherwise, there’s this cycle after you get the money where you have to start to scale and it stalls out. So if you want smooth progression, you always have to be building for the next step. Treat your people well. You are only as good as who you have on the team. I have the easiest job in the whole company. I really do. I just sit here and I talk about all the awesome stuff that everyone else does. When we talk about achieving these milestones, bringing customers in, and getting recognition, that is a tremendous amount of work by everyone around me. So treat your team well, surround yourself with good people, and you will go far.
Trevor, I think we’ve touched on some of this already. But what’s next? What should we be looking forward to from Syzygy?
So what’s next for us? We got the money. Now, we need to go deploy in the field. It is very much on us to execute. So we’ve got to get this technology tested at our facility, we’ve got to get it deployed in the field, we’ve got to hit the metrics and milestones that have been set before us, and then the sky’s the limit.
Awesome! Trevor, this has been fun. Thank you for joining us today on The Chemical Show. I appreciate having you here.
Thanks, everyone for listening. Keep listening, following, sharing, and growing The Chemical Show podcast. We’ll talk to you again soon.
About Trevor Best:
Trevor Best is the CEO and Co-Founder of Syzygy Plasmonics. Syzygy Plasmonics is pioneering a new type of chemical reactor driven by light rather than heat, enabling the potential for dramatically more efficient chemical manufacturing. At Syzygy, he has successfully raised three funding rounds. He is currently focusing on bringing Syzygy’s revolutionary photochemical technology to market.
Before starting Syzygy, he worked for Baker Hughes. There he steadily progressed into management, where he gained expertise in quality assurance (Six Sigma Black Belt), regulatory compliance, technology development management, project and personnel management, supply chain management, internal/external communications, and business process architecture.
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