Why this entrepreneur sees a bright future for hydrogen innovation Houston's energy transition ecosystem

Patrick Sullivan of Oceanit joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share the potential he sees for Houston's energy ecosystem to transition efficiently. Photo courtesy of Oceanit

While Patrick Sullivan lives on an island almost 4,000 miles away from Houston, the entrepreneur is no stranger to Houston's energy ecosystem.

Oceanit, founded in 1985 by Sullivan, is based in Hawaii, a portion of its customer base is based right here in Houston. Additionally, he opened his company's H2XCEL lab locally earlier this year.

“We are, indeed, in the middle of the sea, but we work around the world,” Sullivan, who serves as president and CEO of his company, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “What we do in Houston is interesting because we consider Houston the center of energy. And energy makes the world go around, and there’s just no two ways around it. Of course, there’s lots of transition going on, so it’s an exciting time to be doing energy.”

Learn more about Oceanit's presence in Houston and the impact the company is having on the energy transition in the podcast as well as the excerpt below.

EnergyCapital: What’s the opportunity you see with hydrogen?

Patrick Sullivan: The US has several millions of miles of methane pipelines, so if you start looking at loading hydrogen into those methane pipelines, you start displacing carbon. There are all sorts of interesting trade offs, but one of the challenges is this area called embrittlement. What that means is hydrogen is a little molecule, and when you put it next to a metal, sometimes it likes to hide in the metal, and over time, sometimes it builds up and then it can crack that metal. That’s called hydrogen embrittlement, and people are worried about that.

Turns out, we have developed a technology for a military application, and we can do things to metal without embrittlement. We’ve learned a lot over the years. We thought, what if we take what we’ve learned in the defense space and apply it to energy with the pipelines.

EC: What’s your goal with your new Houston-based H2XCEL lab that features your hydrogen embrittlement prevention technology?

PS: We can test those to failure right there in Houston.We’re talking to all the pipeline companies about getting their steel pipe and running through all these tests to show how it’s going to perform with all these different mixtures.

The idea is to get the community to see that when you integrate technology from different fields into the energy space, we can keep making progress.

It’s going to take time. But if we start reducing carbon and the use of fossil fuel today, we buy time for the planet.

EC: What’s the next big thing within tech that you’re working on? 

PS: It’s a really interesting question, there’s so much going on right now, it’s really an exciting time in the tech space and the reason is because the world has been asleep at the switch for a while in terms of real technology.

One of the things we’ve put a lot of time and effort into is artificial intelligence. Large language models are definitely entertaining and have tons of opportunities. They’ve have got their pros and cons. We’ve worked with Noam Chomsky for years now, and our approach is based on Chomskyan grammar. The idea of human cognition is linguistic competency. When you speak, you’re mathematically efficient. It’s not random, it’s how human brains are put together. We built a system based on that hypothesis.

I think the reason AI is going to get more airtime too is the social and political consequences of misinformation.

— — —

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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A View From HETI

A View From UH

A Rice University professor studied the Earth's carbon cycle in the Rio Madre de Dios to shed light on current climate conditions. Photo courtesy of Mark Torres/Rice University

Carbon cycles through Earth, its inhabitants, and its atmosphere on a regular basis, but not much research has been done on that process and qualifying it — until now.

In a recent study of a river system extending from the Peruvian Andes to the Amazon floodplains, Rice University’s Mark Torres and collaborators from five institutions proved that that high rates of carbon breakdown persist from mountaintop to floodplain.

“The purpose of this research was to quantify the rate at which Earth naturally releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and find out whether this process varies across different geographic locations,” Torres says in a news release.

Torres published his findings in a study published in PNAS, explaining how they used rhenium — a silvery-gray, heavy transition metal — as a proxy for carbon. The research into the Earth’s natural, pre-anthropogenic carbon cycle stands to benefit humanity by providing valuable insight to current climate challenges.

“This research used a newly-developed technique pioneered by Robert Hilton and Mathieu Dellinger that relies on a trace element — rhenium — that’s incorporated in fossil organic matter,” Torres says. “As plankton die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, that dead carbon becomes chemically reactive in a way that adds rhenium to it.”

The research was done in the Rio Madre de Dios basin and supported by funding from a European Research Council Starting Grant, the European Union COFUND/Durham Junior Research Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation.

“I’m very excited about this tool,” Torres said. “Rice students have deployed this same method in our lab here, so now we can make this kind of measurement and apply it at other sites. In fact, as part of current research funded by the National Science Foundation, we are applying this technique in Southern California to learn how tectonics and climate influence the breakdown of fossil carbon.”

Torres also received a three-year grant from the Department of Energy to study soil for carbon storage earlier this year.

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