With each of our innovator stories, we get a chance to meet the people behind EU-funded ideas, which have the potential to change our future for the better. 


In this latest feature, we reveal our inspiring conversation with Tiago Lagarteira, the co-founder and CEO of Pixel Voltaic.  

Following a brilliant presentation at Dealflow.eu’s University Spin-offs E-pitching event, Tiago shed light on his company’s mission. Pixel Voltaic emerged as a spin-off from the University of Porto and was recently split into two companies: Pixel Voltaic and Halius. Pixel Voltaic will continue to work on the development of laser sealing for photovoltaic devices. Halius will take over Pixel Voltaic’s record-breaking clean hydrogen production. 

Pixel Voltaic received €330,000 in EU funding from Horizon Europe.  

Our main goal is to put Portugal and Europe on the map of cutting-edge technologies that can compete with American and Chinese companies, securing Europe’s position as a leading zone of the globe in terms of radical and game-changing technologies, while ensuring our energy needs and security.

Tell us more about yourself and your work?

My name is Tiago Lagarteira and our startup company is Pixel Voltaic, a spinoff company from the University of Porto, where I’m still working. I am a chemical engineer and I work together with Professor Adélio Mendes and a colleague, Paula Dias. We are the three cofounders of the company. We believe that we have a strong and unique technology that came from academia, and it is ready to gain traction to start exploring the market for clean hydrogen production.


What problem is your product solving and what makes its solution unique?

We are pursuing, as are many research groups and companies, to decarbonize our economy in a way that is both cost-effective and fast enough to meet the target set in the Paris Agreement.  
Among many other solutions, hydrogen has been seen as the enabler for quick or flexible decarbonization, mainly in sectors that are very hard to decarbonize. In 2020, according to the International Energy Agency, the global hydrogen demand was 80 million tons. This proves that there is already a well-established market for hydrogen, mainly in the fields of petrochemistry, synthesis of ammonia and methanol, and also in steel production. The big problem is that more than 85% of the hydrogen produced today comes from a process called reforming of hydrocarbons, in which around 9 kilograms of CO2 are emitted per kilogram of hydrogen that is produced.   

The sustainable solution that is in place, mainly through directives from the European Union and specifically Portugal, is to massively produce green hydrogen from water electrolysis. However, the energy demand for producing the same amount of hydrogen is nearly five times higher compared to the steam reforming of hydrocarbons, making green hydrogen at least three to four times more expensive than the grey hydrogen that is associated to CO2 emissions.   

This is where methane decomposition, also known as pyrolysis, comes into play. We take the methane molecule, either from natural gas or from biogas, and we split it into clean hydrogen and solid carbon structures. Therefore, we have a technology that is capable of using the current infrastructures for distribution and storage of natural gas and biogas to produce hydrogen with no CO2 emissions very quickly. This will allow a faster decarbonization while benefiting the end user because the amount of hydrogen we produce and how we do so will significantly affect the final price that our end users will be required to pay. 

Furthermore, we have some competitive advantages over other companies that are pursuing a similar process. Our competitors are pursuing processes well above 1000 degrees Celsius to circumvent catalytic deactivation, making their processes dangerous and very energy-intensive.  But when this process is carried out at moderate temperatures, like those typically used in the industry, the formation of a solid product on the surface of a catalyst quickly deactivates it. Hence, there are no reports of reactors operating for more than 200 hours below 1000 degrees Celsius until our solution.  

In our turn, at Pixel Voltaic, we are developing a process between 500 and 650 degrees Celsius to overcome the issue of the quick deactivation of the catalyst and the reactor. We have a patented process using cyclic regeneration of the catalyst, and we have a reactor that has been operating for more than 4500 hours of continuous operation without any drop in the catalytic performance. 


How did you start your journey, and where are you now on the road to achieving your ambition?

I started working in the group of Professor Adélio Mendes in 2016, and since then I have been multitasking while also doing my PhD in the field of electrochemistry. I have worked with fuel cells and with water electrolyzers to produce green hydrogen, which allowed us to identify some bottlenecks and technological challenges regarding green hydrogen production through water electrolysis.  

In 2019, professor Adélio Mendes came up with the idea that would enable an industrial process of methane decomposition for producing hydrogen: we use methane for producing hydrogen and solid carbon, and, if we shift the reaction direction for very short periods, we are able to hydrogenate the interface between the catalyst and the solid carbon and make it drop off, consistently freeing the diffusion pathways for methane to reach the active sites. This is what allows us to have continuous and stable performance from our reactor. The project so far has been a success, as we achieved world-record reactor stability. 


What’s the biggest impact EU-funding has had on your journey so far, and can you specify an outcome? 

In 2019, we had our very initial proof of concept, in which we observed that we could fully regenerate the catalytic system, and we applied, with the University of Porto, for a FET Proactive (now named Pathfinder) call from the European Innovation Council.  

Together with a strong consortium, coordinated by the University of Porto, we were able to secure a grant of a little bit over €3.6 million. We have, as a partner, ITQ from CSIC in Valencia, responsible for synthesizing and developing a suitable catalyst for this specific reaction. The German Aerospace Center, also partner, is developing a hydrogen purification system that allows us to recycle the unreacted methane back into the reactor and remove pure hydrogen from our process. Other partner, EPFL, is doing fundamental and theoretical simulations. We also have Paul Wurth, a steel producer from Luxembourg, and Quantis in Switzerland doing LCA analysis on our process.  

Finally, there was the need to involve a startup to show that we had a strategy to take the technology beyond the project. That was a big milestone for Pixel Voltaic, as we secured funding of over €330,000 within the project.  

The company is still 100% owned by the cofounders, and being able to secure this public funding was great because we do not need to give away shares in a very early stage of the technology’s development.  
Public funding, compared to private funding, has advantages and disadvantages in terms of IP strategy and the protection of our intellectual property. It is a very important challenge. That is why we had a very initial patent before the project, which was critical to secure this funding. However, we are preparing two more patents to come up with a very robust patent portfolio because every time that you talk to investors, your IP strategy is a critical issue, and typically, with public funding, you need to disclose. That is why our priority is first patenting, and only then are we able to disclose some of our most important results. 


Have you already tested your product with clients? What was it like?

We have two products, it is not only about producing hydrogen since solid carbon is also a valuable commercial product as there are emerging markets for solid carbon structures.  

Depending on the its physical and chemical properties, solid carbon can be used to dope asphalt, cement, rubber, or even to be used in soil amendment. Our competitors produce amorphous carbon structures, typically known as carbon black, since their process only works at very high temperatures. However, our carbon has much more interesting properties, as we work at much lower temperatures. While carbon black’s market price ranges between 200 and 300€ per ton, our carbon nanofibers and carbon nanotubes can easily reach these values per kilogram.  

We also have a big demand in the fields of batteries, sensors, supercapacitors and fuel cells, where our solid carbon has a very high commercial value. However, we did not put as much effort into validating these markets and having our products tested by our clients as we did into technological developments because this was the bottleneck.  

We started at TRL1 and we reached TRL3 earlier this year. By the end of 112CO2 project, earlier next year, we expect to arrive at TRL4. We are already doing parallel studies with a group in Lisbon that is testing our solid carbon to dope their concrete and replace the amount of cement that they are using. Not only it allows to obtain lighter concrete with improved mechanical properties, but at the same time, since you need much less cement, you have a direct reduction of the CO2 emissions from the cement production itself.  

In parallel, we are characterizing our solid carbon byproduct in terms of electronic and thermal conductivities to make sure that those properties fit the needs of emerging applications that pay much more for our carbon byproduct.  

The market for clean hydrogen is very clear: the fields of petrochemistry, ammonia, methanol and steel demand clean hydrogen to quickly decarbonize these sectors.


What is your company’s greatest achievement to date?

Our catalytic stability is the most important milestone we have achieved so far. On average, a reactor operating in our range of temperatures lasts between 40 and 80 hours. The previous record stability is around 200 hours, and we reached already more than 4500 hours of continuous operation. We are very confident that we can reach 8000 hours, meaning that we can have a reactor that operates fully stable for at least one year.  

In addition, the creation of the startup and the development of a business strategy and business plan were also important steps because, when we want to reach and secure funding, it is very important to have a clear business strategy and the ability to generate early revenue.   


How do you see your company making a difference in the future?

Pixel Voltaic was created in 2018, and by that time we were developing another unique technology in the field of hermetic encapsulation of third-generation photovoltaics. When we were applying for the EIC FET call, there was the need to involve a startup company to develop this parallel business of methane decomposition for clean hydrogen production, so we included Pixel Voltaic in the consortium.  
During the work carried out in 112CO2 project and after getting approached by big companies, VCs, and acceleration services, it became very clear that we needed to split the two technologies in two different companies. Earlier this year, we created a second company called Halius, and Pixel Voltaic will stay with the development of the laser sealing for photovoltaic devices. This is a business strategy because we have partners that are very interested in hydrogen and not interested on photovoltaics, and the opposite is also true.  

In the next stage of funding, we will pursue the technology with the new company, Halius. We have the vision of coming up with a solution to make the energy transition much faster and much smoother for the pocket of the end-user by using a molecule that is commonly seen as a fossil fuel, but in a clean way. 

In the future, we plan to use biogas as a feedstock for our process because biogas comes from biomass, which uptakes CO2 from the atmosphere so we can produce clean hydrogen with the negative carbon balance in the atmosphere. This generates additional revenue streams through carbon credits.  

As any other company, we are profit-driven, but we also have some national and European principles. We are very proud to be a Portuguese company and to be an European company. Our main goal is to put Portugal and Europe on the map of cutting-edge technologies that can compete with American and Chinese companies, securing Europe’s position as a leading zone of the globe in terms of radical and game-changing technologies while ensuring our energy needs and security. 


Why is participating in Dealflow.eu’s e-pitching event and receiving their coaching important to you?

It had a very positive impact! Our experience with the Innovation Radar and Dealflow.eu teams was very fruitful because this was a chance to develop our skills, not only in the way that we communicate the technology but also in the way we pitch our business, making sure that the message comes across to anyone that is on the other side of the table. It is very different if you pitch your technology to technology experts, investors, or even to the general public, and the specialized feedback we got from the Dealflow.eu team and from Matt Smith was crucial for our collective learning and growth. 


How would you define success and what keeps you going in the pursuit of it?

The simplest way to define developing technology in a startup is a sprint against bankruptcy. It is very important that we secure funding continuously and that we try to avoid gaps between funding because it has a big impact on our resources and on ability to maintain our existing team. If we miss funding, even if it is only for six months, this means that we need to start all over again and delay the development of the business, as it is not enough to have the best technology in the world; we must run faster than the others.   
Our cooperation with the University of Porto is strategic because it allows us to work together with master’s and PhD students, enabling us to pre-screen talent. Moreover, it is important to be close to the latest innovations that come typically from fundamental research or to be able to participate in research projects at National and European levels. 
There are other essential personal aspects in parallel. We need to have a healthy life; family is very important to us, as is our relationship as a team. We need to be on the same page. I would define success as keeping this journey alive. 



Article published by EurA AG.

About Innovator Spotlight Stories

The aim of innovator stories is to highlight and share with investors and relevant stakeholders in the industry, insights, and unique stories from some of the most innovative EU-funded project that Dealflow.eu is proud to support.

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Disclaimer: Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.