Lockheed Martin has acquired "substantially all of the assets of Sun Catalytix Corporation" for an undisclosed amount. The acquisition complements "Lockheed Martin's capabilities in the area of energy management and efficiency." Approximately 25 employees will be transferred to Lockheed Martin, according to a release. Lockheed Martin’s net sales for 2013 were $45.4 billion.

When we spoke with Sun Catalytix investor and board member Bob Metcalfe back in 2010, he told us that Sun Catalytix aimed to commercialize a new, affordable catalyst that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. Metcalfe was the co-inventor of ethernet and was working as a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners at the time of the interview.

According to Metcalfe, MIT professor Daniel Nocera discovered a process that "mimicked photosynthesis with inorganic chemistry." Polaris swept in before Nocera published his paper, got a license from MIT's Technology Licensing Office, and seed-funded the company. Amir Nashat, another MIT chemist who was also a general partner at Polaris, became Sun Catalytix's founding CEO. 

Sun Catalytix signed a contract for more than $4 million in funding from the U.S. DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) in 2010, and the firm has won more than $10 million in VC funding from Polaris, Tata Ltd., and others.

Nocera envisioned a residential off-grid solar system that used solar electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen gas would be stored in a tank and could be used to create electricity via a fuel cell even when the sun wasn't shining. The system could potentially synthesize clean water from the gases. Nocera viewed this system as the potential enabler of the hydrogen economy, since transportation of hydrogen would no longer be an issue, and gas production would now be distributed residence by residence.

The science underpinning Sun Catalytix was an amorphous cobalt-phosphate catalyst in solution at neutral pH at 1 atmosphere that can electrolyze water to hydrogen and oxygen. Metcalfe said the materials involved were nontoxic, "dirt-cheap," earth-abundant materials that "you could buy at Home Depot."  

That was the original vision.

But, as Martin LaMonica reported last year in MIT Technology Review, the company's vision of enabling the hydrogen economy is now on hold. 

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup instead shifted its technology and business plan from the difficult-to-commercialize hydrolysis technology to the difficult-to-commercialize flow-battery energy storage technology.

Flow batteries have the potential for storing multiple hours of energy and then dispatching that energy when needed or to provide grid services or for smoothing out the variable supply of wind and solar farms. The firm suggested it would use the same form factor, a shipping container, as has been used by some other flow battery aspirants such as Primus, Imergy, VisX, EnerVault and CellCube. (LaMonica reports on the flow battery technology here.) The firm faces energy storage competition from new vendors such as Tesla, Aquion, Eos, Ambri, and LightSail Energy, as well as established vendors such as ABB, AES and S&C.

Flow batteries have made some recent progress in commercialization, but developing new energy storage technology remains a time- and capital-intensive effort. Perhaps Lockheed Martin has the wallet and patience to bring this science to market.

The company will be renamed as Lockheed Martin Advanced Energy Storage and will report to the Missiles and Fire Control group within the defense contractor.

Tags: bob metcalfe, electrolysis, fuel cells, hydrogen, lockheed martin, mit, polaris ventures, solar