05/03/2021 | The show

ACHEMA Start-up Award Finalist: ESy-Labs GmbH

Under power: high-throughput development of electrosyntheses

Electrosyntheses have been around for a long time. But in this era of the energy transition, they are experiencing a true renaissance. New electrode materials and electrolytes, as well as a much improved understanding of electrochemical principles, are making electrosynthesis more relevant than ever. The start-up ESy-Labs is focusing on this and is aiming for no less than a revolution of chemical synthesis.

The basic idea is tempting: expensive, toxic and often stoichiometric redox reagents are replaced by electricity - efficiently, without the need for expensive precious metals and without byproducts that are difficult to dispose of. But so far, many companies are shying away from the effort involved in process development.

This is where ESy-Labs' offering comes in: The company develops alternative reaction routes on behalf of its customers using intelligent screening methods. "With ESy-Screening, our customers will be able to fully exploit the potential of organic electrosynthesis in the future without having to bring in their own expertise" explains CTO Prof. Dr. Siegfried R. Waldvogel. "By combining manual screening and design of experiments in the determination of process conditions, it has been possible, for example, to significantly and rapidly improve the cleavage of disulfide bridges in the production of fine chemical products."

A lot of know-how

The developments at ESy-Labs are based on extensive knowledge of electrodes, electrolytes, as well as cell design, reaction mechanisms and kinetics.  "Electrosynthesis has been around for a very long time, be it Kolbe electrolysis as the oldest known electrosynthesis or the purification of metals such as copper. In recent years, electrosynthesis has experienced a renaissance as a new and innovative process. The direct application of electricity in chemical conversion came back into focus," says Dr. Tobias Gärtner, CEO of ESy-Labs GmbH.

However, ESy-Labs offers more than "just" the electrochemical step. The company develops methods that combine these processes with catalytic and biotechnological steps to form reaction cascades. The manual methods used so far are to be replaced by high-throughput technology in the future. The founders will also present this concept at the ACHEMA Pulse: "We are currently still in the process of establishing and refining the ESy-screening technology. In this context, it is important to get feedback from reviewers on concrete statements of our business plan within the framework of the ACHEMA Start-up Award. Furthermore, it is important to position ourselves in the field of technology suppliers and to increase our visibility in the chemical industry. The platform of the Start-up Award helps enormously in this respect," says Siegfried Waldvogel.

Establishing contact with customers and investors

Since the spin-off from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft in 2018, the founders have already achieved quite a bit. While the search for suitable premises was initially difficult, the company has recently moved into a new location where it can set up laboratory and technical center space according to its own needs. "It was easier than we thought to assemble the first employees. We were able to put together an enthusiastic and reliable team," says Tobias Gärtner.

On the one hand, this team can now devote itself to building up a customer base to whom it can introduce electrosynthesis as a way of producing with less waste and at lower cost. However, other contacts are also needed for the next growth step, says Tobias Gärtner: "For the concrete implementation of ESy-Screening, we are striving to get funding from the EU as part of the EIC Accelerator, but we need support from investors and cooperation partners for this."

No limits

Given the versatility of electrosynthesis and the ambitious sustainability goals that many companies have set for themselves, there seem to be no limits to further company development. Siegfried Waldvogel, at any rate, is optimistic about the future: "We believe that electrosynthesis will be a key tool for meeting the challenges of the 21st century, as we can replace critical resources and use it to defossilize industrial processes. If electricity from renewable sources is used, it is a CO2-neutral method."

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