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Fifty Years partners with Antora to produce zero carbon heat and power
Watch the Super Bowl and you might be forgiven for thinking, if only for a moment, that we had finally gotten ahold of the climate crisis. No less than six electric cars ads were peppered throughout the big game, featuring a cast of Hollywood A-listers from Salma Hayek to Eugene Levy. Arnold Schwarzenegger even played Zeus in a spot for the new (electric) BMW. Detroit is going green! The internal combustion engine, which has been belching fumes into the atmosphere for more than a century, is on its way to the dustbin of history. We’re saved!
If only it were so easy.
Transport is just the beginning. The climate change task is so monumental because so much of the CO2 emissions we must eliminate are still hiding in plain sight. They are in the cement in our sidewalks. The cooking oil in our kitchen. The pills we take when we’re sick. The plastics in our packing. The ingredients of modern life – from the built environment to the goods we consume – require vast amounts of heat and electricity to make. Cement is the largest building block of civilization by mass, and accounts for 7% of global CO2 emissions because its production requires kiln temperatures as high as 1,450 degrees C. Nitrogen fertilizer (2% of global emissions) relies on ammonia made through the heat and energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process. Steel (8% of global emissions) requires vast amounts of heat to melt iron ore. Today just about all the heat needed for these processes comes, simply, from burning stuff.
And boy oh boy do we like to burn stuff. Feeling cold? Burn some wood and get cozy by the fire. Need electricity? Burn natural gas to boil water and drive a steam turbine. Making a skyscraper? Burn some special coal to melt metals and shape them into beams. Our entire civilization depends on burning fossil fuels to create the heat and electricity we need for our modern way of life. Despite all of our apparent advances, we’re not all that far removed from our primal existence: over 84% of our primary energy production still comes from burning stuff. That’s 450 exajoules/yr from 🔥, or 1/20th the energy released by the Chicxulub impactor that killed the dinosaurs.
Reshaping atoms to suit our needs is unfortunately an energy-hungry undertaking. Viewed through that lens, it’s perhaps not surprising that industry is so heavily reliant on fossil fuels, making it likely the largest source of emissions globally (30%).
Renewables like solar and wind have started to chip away. Globally, 290 gigawatts of green power were added to the mix in 2021, increasing total capacity to 3.3 TW. In America, more than 90% of the utility-scale power projects added to America’s grid through the first half of 2021 were renewables. In some markets, solar and wind have reached par or are now cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives.
Renewables, however, have a fatal flaw: intermittency. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, which means that the world’s rapidly-growing solar and wind fleets must be buttressed by “peaker plants”, typically fuelled by natural gas. These are kept on standby, ready to fire up when renewables fall short and prices spike.
For industrial power users, this model is unpredictable and financially painful. A few peak days each year can account for the majority of the annual energy bill for, say, a steel smelter or an ethanol plant.
Batteries have the potential to liberate industry from this toxic dynamic. However, the dominant technology – lithium-ion – is simply too expensive to deploy at the scale required to obviate the need for backup fossil-fuel plants. Lithium’s sweet spot is filling shorter gaps, say between four and eight hours.
This has sent the industry on a search for the holy grail: a long-duration energy storage alternative that meets or beats gas power on price and performance, and can be deployed around the world. Today, there is just one option: pumped hydro. This involves two reservoirs, usually separated by several hundred feet of elevation. Energy is used to pump water up to fill the top reservoir, which then drains when it is needed, turning turbines that generate electricity. It is the cheapest and most plentiful energy storage option; America has 43 such installations.
The problem, of course, is that there are so many bodies of water one can dam. Sites are typically remote, hugely disruptive to the environment to build, and present flooding dangers should something go wrong. And in an era of climate change, depending on water supplies for energy is a gamble. The federal government in August announced that, for the first time since the Hoover Dam was finished in 1936, it would ration water from the Colorado River, a source of power and water to 40 million people. Pumped hydro, in short, isn’t a scalable option.
Enter Antora Energy. The company has developed a zero-carbon thermal battery that is safer, longer-lasting, more efficient, and cheaper than anything available today. Unique among electricity storage systems, it also stores and can dispatch heat required for most of the world’s core industrial processes.
The system revolves around two key elements: blocks of carbon and thermal photovoltaic panels (TPV). To understand how they work, think of a toaster. In a toaster, an electric current heats up coils that glow to brown your bread. Antora replaces the coils with carbon blocks about the size of a washing machine. These are off-the-shelf items used in smelting that can be heated to extreme temperatures and have an extremely high energy density (~700 Wh/kg) compared to chemical batteries (~100-300 Wh/kg). Housed in a well-insulated box that looks a bit like a garden shed, Antora’s blocks are heated to higher than 1,500 degrees C, at which point, they glow incandescent. The TPVs can then convert that glow back into electricity.
Antora’s breakthrough is in the design – ultra simple, no moving parts, and made from inexpensive pieces that are already easily manufactured at super large quantities. No rare elements have to be mined and no exotic metals have to be used.
The system can discharge energy for more than 100 hours, with only about 1% energy loss per day, so that it can provide energy during cloudy and windless days. And if a facility needs a source of heat to, say, heat a furnace to make cement, it can draw heat directly from the Antora battery.
The result is the most nimble energy storage system on the market, a ‘sun in a box’ that is capable of releasing electricity or arbitraging it to heat for industrial processes that would otherwise come from coal or gas combustion. More importantly, the system has the promise, at scale, to transform intermittent renewables into a source of smooth, baseload power that could help consign coal and gas-fired plants, like the internal combustion engine, to the dustbin of history.
Antora’s founding team met at Cyclotron Road, a program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for scientists seeking to commercialize their research. Chief Executive Officer Andrew Ponec sold his previous startup Dragonfly Systems, a photovoltaic startup, to Sunpower. Chief Product Officer David Bierman has a PhD in solar thermal energy systems from MIT, while Chief Operating Officer Justin Briggs earned his applied physics PhD from Stanford, where he researched the TPV technology at the heart of how Antora’s battery juggles between thermal and electrical energy.
When they came together, they took a tech-agnostic approach to a simple question: what is the biggest problem in energy to improve human lives?
Amid a renewables boom spurred by a historic manufacturing scale-up that drove down prices for panels and turbines, they quickly alighted on the long-duration storage problem. They looked at all of the options, from molten salt and compressed air to hydrogen, before zeroing in on carbon blocks and TPVs.
Decarbonizing heavy industry has long been seen as the most difficult part of the climate puzzle. Plant owners run highly-complex, dangerous sites that demand total reliability in terms of safety and continuity of operations. Convincing them to swap out tried-and-true natural gas boilers requires confidence that the alternative can match or exceed their exacting requirements.
Antora does. Power from natural gas costs about 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Antora expects to be able to win on costs alone. And that’s without accounting for additional carbon prices that may be imposed. The carbon blocks' energy density means that Antora’s modules have roughly the same footprint as a lithium-ion battery – or even smaller – which is important when it comes to integrating into an industrial site. And the materials they are using are abundant with a safety profile that carries none of the operational risks, like thermal runaway in lithium-ion, of rival technologies.
Antora’s thermal batteries could be the key to greening industry and, longer term, speeding the end of fossil fuel plants for electric generation, which are the single biggest source of carbon emissions globally.
At Fifty Years, our sweet spot is supporting founders at the earliest stages building deep tech companies that can generate huge financial outcomes and create massive positive impact.
Deep tech: Antora has built a thermal battery that’s more efficient and cheaper than anything on the market and promises to deliver the Holy Grail of energy: transforming intermittent renewables into zero-carbon baseload power that can be used to decarbonize first, heavy industry, and eventually, the entire electricity grid.
$1b yearly revenue: Heavy industry spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on electricity and heat. Antora can deliver both at prices that undercut natural gas plants and avoid present and future pollution penalties.
Massive positive societal impact: Carbon emissions are embedded in the built environment and virtually every product we consume. Antora promises to clean up the most stubbornly-dirty parts of the economy by decarbonizing the industries at the heart of modern life.
Inspired by their vision and execution, Fifty Years was proud to lead Antora’s seed round and we’re excited to now deepen our partnership in their $50M Series A led by our friends at Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Lowercarbon Capital. Also joining in the Series A are several other investors including Shell Ventures, BHP Ventures, Grok Ventures, Trust Ventures, Overture VC, and Impact Science Ventures. At Fifty Years, helping great scientists and engineers become great entrepreneurs is our jam, and we’re looking forward to continuing to help Andrew, David, Justin, and team transition industry to zero carbon heat and power.
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