Former Joi Scientific employee says he debunked technology NB Power spent millions on
Austin Walker left Florida startup after meeting where he says his findings weren’t shared with investors
A former employee of Joi Scientific said he debunked claims the company made about its hydrogen technology but quit after being unsatisfied with the company's response to his findings.
NB Power is facing an end-of-year deadline to prove the Florida startup's hydrogen technology works, or the provincial government will pull the plug on the utility's Florida lab, which costs about $20,000 a month to run.
The company has claimed it has found an efficient way to generate hydrogen from seawater on demand, something that would be a major innovation.
NB Power and the Regional Development Corporation spent $13 million Cdn to license Joi's technology. NB Power CEO Gaëtan Thomas has maintained the technology has "potential."
"We had independent validation and measurements, but there were parts that could not be measured," Thomas said at a legislature committee on Nov. 1.
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"Some assumptions had been made. We're now back into an area where it's still promising but not to the same levels as we initially thought."
But according to Austin Walker, who worked at Joi Scientific as a lab technician between 2018 and 2019, the technology, or mechanism, as it was often called, is nothing new.
"They always said, 'the mechanism is doing this or that,' but there was never actually a defined mechanism," Walker said.
"There was always just vague theories."
The company was always keen to differentiate its technology from electrolysis, an established process that uses electricity to generate hydrogen gas and oxygen, Walker said. Electrolysis is considered wholly inefficient for power generation.
But Walker said he proved to company executives that its technology is essentially just electrolysis by another name.
That would make the company's claim of 200 per cent efficiency impossible, Walker said, because it would violate a law of thermodynamics that says "you cannot create energy just kind of out of nowhere."
'A healthy dose of skepticism'
Walker was only 21 years old when he started at the company, fresh out of school, in the fall of 2018. Yet, he said that he was able to determine over the course of just a few months that the company's technology was nothing new.
He had just finished a bachelor's degree in biology, with a minor in chemistry, at East Central University in Oklahoma when he was hired at Joi Scientific in October 2018. His job ranged from doing "basic chemistry experiments to just learning more about the technology" under the direction of the vice-president of science.
Before his job interview, Walker reviewed Joi Scientific's website and its promotional materials.
One marketing video, which claims that "Joi Scientific has solved the problems that have kept hydrogen from being widely used for energy," caught Walker's eye because the video's claims sounded like "perpetual motion," he said.
"Our patented extraction process takes a tiny amount of energy to start a chemical process, making enough hydrogen to power the process itself and generate plenty more for use in fuel cells and engines and boilers," the video says.
Walker assumed he was the one who didn't know enough about the subject, especially since the company is based in the Space Life Sciences Center at the NASA Kennedy Space Center.
"I kind of had a healthy dose of skepticism right from the start, but it wasn't until about one or two weeks in that I really kind of was like, 'OK, yeah … something's not right here,'" Walker said.
Walker said the company came up with a slideshow for investors that includes a bullet-point list of reasons why its technology was not electrolysis. CBC News has not seen that list.
"I would look at that list of things and be like, 'None of that really makes sense, and I'm pretty sure I've seen the exact opposite in my own experimentation,'" Walker said.
A few months into his job at Joi Scientific, Walker began testing the bullet points from the list during his lunch breaks and said he was able to disprove one point in "20 minutes at most."
In May, about two months after he began doing experiments to test the company's claims, Walker said, the company allowed him 15 minutes to present his findings at a staff meeting.
He said he was able to prove all but one point wrong. He also used part of his presentation to explain how electrolysis works.
"A lot of people didn't grasp the full weight of what I had said, so what I did after that is I went to people individually and kind of explained things," Walker said.
He said these people included Robert Koeneman, the company's president and senior vice-president of technology.
"I went with Rob out to get drinks and kind of explain to him all of my thoughts in detail, to the point where I knew I had done my best to explain to him why everything was wrong," Walker said.
On a call in midsummer, Joi Scientific told its shareholders that its technology didn't work as previously described, according to a record of the call obtained by CBC News.
On that call, Joi Scientific CEO Traver Kennedy admitted the company had been calculating power incorrectly.
But Kennedy didn't mention Walker's findings in May that Joi Scientific was performing electrolysis and didn't have groundbreaking technology.
Second employee to raise concerns
Walker is the second former Joi Scientific employee to raise concerns about the company's technology.
He is also one of at least eight Joi Scientific employees who are no longer with the company. At its height this year, the company had about 20 employees, according to interviews with former employees and a review of LinkedIn profiles.
In addition to Walker, the departures included two executives who were in charge of science and engineering.
NB Power declined an interview request for this story.
Joi Scientific also declined an interview request.
In an emailed statement, vice-president of marketing Vicky Harris said the company "remains as committed as ever to continuing our work on our seawater-based hydrogen technology in co-operation with our licensees, including NB Power."
She said the company has "encountered delays and technical challenges" but is working through them with partners. Her statement didn't elaborate on the delays and technical challenges.
"We remain confident that Joi Scientific is on the right path to create a new, cost-effective, and clean energy source in the form of green hydrogen," the statement said.
NB Power's own testing
Even though there were reportedly third-party verifications of Joi Scientific's technology, Walker believes people often "take it for granted that you know what you're talking about."
"Those third-party companies couldn't spend a month of testing like I did to check every little thing," Walker said.
"They had to take some of the stuff on faith and, yeah, I think that's probably how that happened."
In addition to operating a lab in Florida in the same building as Joi Scientific, NB Power has been sending its own employees, plus some engineers from Stantec, to work with Joi's technology.
A spokesperson for Stantec declined an interview request to talk about its work on the Joi Scientific project.
"We are not authorized to speak to this matter, as per our agreement with our client," Stantec spokesperson Ashley Warnock wrote in an email.
Expense reports show at least nine NB Power employees, including Thomas, have travelled to Joi's headquarters since 2016.
But it's not clear whether NB Power's own testing ever flagged any of the same issues Walker found during his lunch breaks.
According to an Oct. 26, 2016, briefing note from NB Power, Joi Scientific's hydrogen production system is "consistently repeatable" and Joi's "methodology used to evaluate the system's production ratio is reasonable and justifiable."
"NB Power observed input to output ratio results which exceeded 100%," the briefing note says.
It goes on to say the test results and data were consistent with claims made by Joi Scientific and "with previous observations made at Joi Scientific at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida [in August 2016]."
It said NB Power's technical representative, an unnamed senior nuclear physicist, "has spent approximately 24 hours of lab time with the system" and "has gained sufficient knowledge to understand the system's operation at a basic level and has confidence that the technology could be readily transferred to NB Power."
Speaking to CBC News in May 2019, Thomas was a believer.
"We have seen results indicating, clearly indicating, independently witnessed, that it does produce more energy than in," Thomas said.
Earlier this month, Thomas acknowledged the technology hasn't reached 70 per cent efficiency but maintained it still has "potential."
The final straw
Walker became frustrated after attending a meeting with shareholders in May, where he said the company didn't mention any of the problems he said he raised earlier that month.
"It just seemed like they weren't even trying to portray the actuality of the company's situation, and I just felt that was kind of unethical," Walker said in an interview.
"Especially when some people were talking about continuing to invest more money into their company."
Thomas, who sits on Joi Scientific's board, also attended that meeting, according to Walker.
Walker described the tone as positive and said shareholders heard "vague empty promises" that he felt the company should have known wouldn't pan out.
"I thought that there was just a line that crossed for me," he said.
Walker said he quit his job later that day.
He believes NB Power needs to audit things better before putting money in and suggested the utility should have sent electrochemists to assess the Joi Scientific technology. NB Power didn't respond to a question about how many, if any, electrochemists were sent to evaluate Joi's technology before it was licensed.
"I thought that the investors and people have a right to know how much their money is being wasted, especially if it's a government-run power company like it is in New Brunswick," Walker said.
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