Founder Interviews: Josiah Nelson of Trolysis

Trolysis Co-Founders Josiah Nelson (Left) and Tirthak Saha (Right)

Learn how Josiah and the Trolysis team plan on powering your home with soda cans in the not-so-distant future.

Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?

Trolysis has a kickass dream team of 8 people (myself, Tirthak, Bob, Annie, Cooper, Aaron, Noah and Ashley). Some highlights of their achievements include designing origami solar panels for NASA satellites, selling over $1 Billion of fuel cells for Bloom Energy, a Forbes 30 Under 30 Award in Energy, a two-time Y Combinator Alumni, and backgrounds from Stanford, MIT, Google, Airbus, and more.

Trolysis has a ton of moving parts, but basically we’ve engineered a system to use recycled aluminum as fuel to make hydrogen and electricity. This may not sound that groundbreaking, but for pretty much the first time in history, we can make renewable energy on-site, on-demand, in extremely large quantities and at a cheaper price point than fossil fuels.

First, though, a quick chemistry lesson. Aluminum has tons of uses and is one of the most abundant materials on earth. What a lot of people don’t know is that it is actually extremely energy-dense. No seriously — it’s 4x more energy-dense than Lithium. 1 kilogram of aluminum contains roughly 8.8 kWh of energy. To put that in perspective, with just 4 kg of aluminum, you couldpower the average american home for a full day.

Why isn’t everyone powering their house with soda cans already, then? Because extracting the energy from the aluminum isn’t easy. The best way to do that is to strip it of a thin oxide layer and drop it in water, where it will release its stored energy by ripping apart the molecules of water to release hydrogen and heat.

Now, onto what Trolysis does. The reaction I just described has been known to scientists for a long time (here’s a demonstration), but by itself it’s basically useless. For example, gasoline by itself can be lit on fire to extract its stored energy, but the reason it’s one of the most widely used fuels today is because someone came along and made an internal combustion engine to harness it. Trolysis is making the aluminum equivalent of an internal combustion engine, and instead of torque, we get hydrogen and electricity.

What motivated you to get started with your company?

Like millions of other people, I was deeply concerned about climate change, but beyond riding a bike and using high-efficiency appliances, I felt utterly powerless to do anything about it. I’m not one to just sit around and twiddle my thumbs waiting for someone else to solve things though, so I started digging and let my curiosity run free to find novel ways to help.

I first came across the aluminum reaction completely by accident, while working on another project. Some of the materials I was working with caused that oxide barrier to be stripped and when I was cleaning up, the containers started bubbling like crazy.

I did some looking into what the reaction was doing and immediately knew I was onto something special, but that was only the beginning.

What went into building the initial product?

This wasn’t something I could sit down and code in a weekend or slap together with a Raspberry Pi. To cite the analogy from before, we basically had to build an internal combustion engine from scratch in order to harness this reaction.

I started by just researching other attempts and failures at putting this technology in a product in extreme detail. Before ever starting to tackle designing the system, I wanted to identify previous points of failure to both avoid them and see if I was missing something. I spent over 100 hours just reading scientific papers and digging through the history of this tech. From this research, I compiled a whole bunch of problems that needed to be solved and pretty well quantified what this product needed to do in order to have a chance of success.

After doing this research, I got to work. Initially by myself but I realized pretty quickly I needed an extra brain (or 9) to do this right, so I recruited two of the most brilliant engineers I knew: my close friend Tirthak Saha and my brother, Noah (who actually has built an internal combustion engine).

Over the course of a few years, we worked together on this as a side project in addition to our jobs. We spent thousands of hours and over $50,000 of our own money to test out various pieces of engineering and we collaborated with some very bright people to help tackle the engineering challenges that go with building a complex system like this.

We made incredible progress during this time and ultimately all the hard work paid off.

We iterated until we finally reached a point where our technology was able to consistently produce hydrogen at a cheaper rate than fossil fuels, and thus, Trolysis was born.

What’s your business model, and how are you bringing this to market?

Trolysis, at the highest level, is aiming to solve the disparity between the simple facts that the Earth is on fire and there’s not a super great way to fix it. That is not to say that there aren’t good ways out there, but the truth of the matter is that any solution has to be adopted at wide-scale for it to be effective, and that pretty much means you have to get big, huge, unglamorous industries to swap over their operations, which is a monster of a task.

Making this system as attractive to these organizations as possible is a driving force behind both our initial product and go-to-market strategies. Everyone’s mind goes straight to running homes off soda cans when they hear about our tech, but there’s a lot that has to happen to get there. We’ve talked with customers and forecasted dozens of strategies to find the most optimal path is starting off with commercial & industrial hydrogen and using revenue from that to fund expansion into other verticals.

Render of commercial-size unit

Right now, about 95% of hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels and almost all of it goes to heavy industry. We’re attractive because we can solve problems for them, both logistical and financial. Being carbon-neutral is just icing on the cake.

One mile of hydrogen pipeline costs about $765,000. A hydrogen storage tank large enough to support a facility’s needs is around $5m and those are costs you have to pay before you can even start buying hydrogen. Our model is to install one of our systems, supply our treated aluminum to it and charge for the hydrogen the system produces. We can come in and put one of our systems down for under $2m and since it’s on-demand, you produce the hydrogen as you use it, meaning far less storage capacity is needed. The hydrogen itself is also less expensive, so they’re reducing costs at both ends.

These are just the tip of the iceberg of our benefits, but the point is that we solve headaches big enough to convince big, risk-averse businesses that switching is worth their time and risk.

We’re currently in the middle of what is shaping up to be a really solid fundraise as we gear up for our first market deployments.

What are your goals for the future?

As we expand and grow our foothold in the commercial hydrogen industry, we want to start moving into verticals with even more impactful use cases. Our tech is a Swiss Army knife. It can be tweaked to suit everything from hydrogen refueling stations, grid-scale energy storage, home electricity generation and even providing power and clean water to remote villages.

My goal is for this technology to bolster the switch to renewables at a global scale. To be clear, I’m not saying our goal is to have Trolysis dominate the energy industry and be the only thing people use — that was never our intention.

The beautiful thing about this technology we’ve built is that it’s not here to replace other technologies — it’s here to augment them. The ultimate goal of this tech is to make renewables as a whole more feasible than fossil fuels. That requires a team effort.

To that end, my goal is to see cities that have solar panels on every rooftop, windmills in abundance and electric vehicles dominating the pavement, but with our technology filling all the gaps; storing the energy at high efficiency until its needed, allowing those EVs to top up their batteries with aluminum so you’re not chained to charging stations, and silently load-balancing the grid.

All this goes to making an economy where energy is democratized. Why the heck should we put trillions of dollars in the coffers of people who had the foresight to drill up dinosaurs when anyone can get their hands on aluminum? It’s the quintessence of putting the power back in the hands of the people.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

We’re a square peg in a round hole.

Our tech is awesome because it has a ton of applications and solves a lot of problems, but that’s a problem because people naturally try to put things in boxes. So, when you take technology that’s complex to begin with and it doesn’t squarely fit into one box, people can get confused.

This is where we’ve learned to be extremely deliberate in how we explain this technology because it’s easy for people to get tripped up or miss important details. Finding the right people that grasp the full picture of the tech and all the different moving parts is pivotal.

There’s not much I’d do differently, though. That’s not to say we haven’t messed up along the way, but like anything, it’s about perspective. My whole life, my dad has always fostered my entrepreneurial spirit and one of the most powerful things he’s said that has always stuck with me is that failure and mistakes are nothing to be afraid of. Even if you fail, it was an adventure — you learn and can be better next time. This whole experience has been a function of learning and the mistakes we’ve made early on helped us to be much stronger and avoid bigger ones later.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Being extremely deliberate on choosing people to come on the team and putting the effort into making a strong culture is probably the single largest driver of our success.

The success of any company really just boils down to the team behind it and Trolysis is no exception. I’ve been extremely lucky in bringing together a team of brilliant and passionate individuals. All of our team members are co-owners of the company with equity. The level of passion and confidence is clear when you have this group of high-caliber individuals investing their time and effort into making this company successful. That’s something I’m extremely proud of.

Another big factor to our success were elements that were beyond our control. Trolysis is sitting in a “goldilocks zone” of timing and technology. Climate change is something people are seeing as a real, imminent threat and secondary industries like electric vehicles and solar panels mean the technology can reach far wider than it could 10 years ago. Technological advancements and shifting public opinion of the last 10 years have been huge in making a stronger market for this tech.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

You have to breathe and you can’t force growth.

I see too many people spinning their wheels, working 100 hour weeks just to barely move the needle. It’s getting better, but people think if you’re not working yourself to the bone, you’re not dedicated enough.

Yeah, I sometimes work until 4 in the morning when something needs to get done, but most days I leave the office at 6 and turn my brain off to spend time with my family. Founder burnout is real and you’re only hurting yourself by not taking time to breathe. It’s not sustainable.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can check out our Website, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. I love hearing from people and getting their thoughts and I make a point to read every email I get. So if you’re excited about what we’re doing and want to get involved or just think it’s cool, shoot me an email or go to town in the comments below!

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