This PhD startup can turn wastewater into clean energy

Conception X
4 min readJan 22, 2024

Over the past five decades, nearly a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions has come from the energy needed to power industries — that’s roughly equivalent to the output of 2.5 billion cars every year.

Increasingly, power-hungry businesses are feeling the heat to clean up their operations while grappling with the crunch of rising fuel prices, forcing a pivot towards alternative energy sources.

Cohort 6 Pipeline Organics has a solution to both problems: a battery that reuses dirty water from industrial processes to generate clean electricity. This is possible thanks to two electrodes covered in proteins that can attack sugars found in wastewater, transforming it into renewable energy.

“We’ve had conversations with target customers, including Coca-Cola — if we can scale our technology to support one of their bottling plants, we could help them generate the equivalent of 160,000 solar panels’ worth of electricity,” co-founder and CEO Arielle Torres says. “Across our product’s lifetime, which we expect to be at least 15 years, that’s £200 million saved. This would also allow them to offset over 38,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year.”

Torres says the technology can be easily adapted across a variety of industries by replacing the proteins attached to each electrode, but wants to focus on food and beverage initially as the wastewater deriving from the production of soft drinks, fruit juices and beer is especially rich in the type of sugar needed for the protein to generate electricity.

The team of four PhD students met at the University of Nottingham while taking part in the YES research commercialisation competition. At the time, co-founder Keyvan Jodeiri was working on promising research around 3D-printed biofuel cells to develop implants in the human body, and during the programme the team brainstormed ways to apply a similar technology to an environmental issue — to generate clean electricity from industrial wastewater rather than, as in Jodeiri’s research, from biochemicals in human blood.

Soon after winning the competition, Torres and Jodeiri, alongside co-founders Andrew Raslan and Eric Lehder, launched Pipeline Organics, and began talking to customers to refine the design and improve the chemistry powering their solution.

“Protein-based fuel cell technology has existed for decades, but it’s never made it out of the lab because there’s not been a way to make it commercially viable with traditional manufacturing techniques,” Torres says.

The team’s generator is the result of deep expertise in 3D printing and adaptive coating combined with years of research on enzymatic biofuel cells — to build hardware that can produce larger amounts of energy than previously possible in the same volume of space, and finally propel the technology out of the lab.

Torres joined Conception X to access a larger network and receive formal entrepreneurship training that could help the team move faster while continuing to work on her PhD.

“When I applied on behalf of Pipeline Organics, I was finishing experiments to write up my thesis,” Torres says. “The programme has a tailored focus on PhD founders, and this meant having the flexibility needed to continue building the company while still learning alongside that.”

While on Conception X, the team pitched to venture capital investors for the first time, receiving £100k through the programme’s partnership with XTX Ventures.

“It was a game changer to get us to the next step,” Torres says. “We’ve been able to really squeeze as much as possible out of it: get the equipment we need without any restrictions you’d often get with grant funding, cover some patenting costs, start considering paying ourselves a pro rata salary — just what we need to not have to get part-time jobs while building the technology.”

Over the past few months, Pipeline Organics has built a prototype and tested it in the lab with artificial wastewater, experimenting with different protein coatings, electrode materials and other variables. In 2024, Torres says, the plan is to complete a series of customer pilots and validate the technology to translate it into a commercial product by the end of 2025.

“I had never considered entrepreneurship as a career option previously,” Torres says. “It turns out I quite enjoy pitching, building financial models and forecasts — and the excitement of seeing the company grow and make an impact.”

The long-term vision, Torres says, is to build a scalable, affordable solution that can help reduce carbon emissions across industries, and eventually make it easier for businesses globally, including those operating in developing countries, to reach net zero.

Pipeline Organics is currently raising. Get in touch with Arielle Torres to learn more.



Conception X

Venture builders creating deeptech startups from leading research labs and PhD programmes around the UK.