Honors Gallery

ORNL spinoff’s food waste conversion process has environmental and economic potential 

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2023

Award Type: National

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)


The problems being solved: The food waste conversion technology commercialized by Electro-Active Technologies addresses two environmental concerns at the same time. One issue is that an estimated 40% of food produced ends up as waste in landfills, which are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. A second is that clean hydrogen, a completely sustainable energy source that is not associated with greenhouse gases, is costly and complicated to produce using existing technologies that involve water electrolysis (using electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen molecules).   

The technology solution: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) developed a new technology to accelerate a process called microbial electrolysis to create hydrogen from food waste. The process involves tiny organisms called microbes that eat food waste and convert it to energy particles that are then combined to make hydrogen atoms. This process is 50% more efficient and 43% less expensive than the water-splitting method typically used to produce hydrogen. The system is low cost and uses small, modular units that can be stacked to scale up production if needed. 

The tech transfer mechanisms: ORNL signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Electro-Active in 2019. In 2018, ORNL issued a field-of-use limited exclusive R&D license with a commercial license option; that license was amended twice as the technology’s commercialization potential evolved. In 2021, through a licensing program for companies that participated in the Innovation Crossroads fellowship program, ORNL granted Electro-Active a field-of-use limited exclusive commercial license.  

The tech transfer excellence: ORNL leveraged multiple tools in its arsenal—the Bredesen Center (a program that promotes graduate research collaborations between ORNL and the University of Tennessee), Innovation Crossroads, multiple licensing vehicles and a CRADA—to help an energetic early-career entrepreneur and a research scientist commercialize an innovative technology. The partners coupled strong technical advances in clean energy with an entrepreneurial research team that enabled the technology to be a lab spin-out. This approach allowed the team to focus on specific IP to help Electro-Active pursue a scalable, cost-effective solution for producing green hydrogen fuel. 

The outcomes: The credibility associated with licensing the ORNL technology has helped Electro-Active raise $3.1 million in funding, primarily from private investors. The licensing also was key to two strategic follow-on projects with major utility providers in Georgia and California, both of which launched in late summer 2022. The spin-out of Electro-Active from ORNL promises to boost job growth in East Tennessee and possibly beyond once the company begins production. Its headquarters in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, enhances the region’s reputation as a hub for clean energy startups. Electro-Active currently employs six staffers and provides University of Tennessee students with work experience in the company’s lab. The company plans to double its technical headcount in the next year as its technology evolves toward commercialization and generates additional funding. 

Team Members:

Abhijeet Borole, Jennifer Caldwell, Edna Gergel, Alex Lewis, Dan Miller, Kelly Wampler

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