Bill Gates and Chris Sacca invest $50 million in Antora Energy
Artistic representation of a “thermal battery” from Antora Energy.
Photo courtesy of Antora Energy
Decarbonization on the scale needed to meet global warming mitigation goals will require a radical overhaul of global infrastructure. Heavy industry is an important and often overlooked piece of the puzzle.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has done extensive research on the matter. In his 2021 book, “How to Avoid Climate Catastrophe”, Gates wrote that the process of making things like cement, steel and plastic is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. . This is largely because the high temperature heat needed for industrial processes usually comes from natural gas.
Gates, through investment arm Breakthrough Energy Ventures, is now backing a startup that is in the very early stages of solving the problem through technology.
Founded in 2018, Antora Energy takes zero-emission energy from renewable energy sources, like wind and solar farms, and converts it into heat, which it stores in solid carbon blocks insulated in a sort of thermal battery. From there, the stored energy is used as heat in the industrial processes needed to make materials like cement and steel, or it is converted into electricity.
In its effort to achieve its ambitious goals, Antora said on Wednesday it had raised $50 million in a funding round led by Chris Sacca’s Breakthrough and Lowercarbon Capital. The venture capital arm of energy giant Shell also contributed to the deal.
The Antora thermal battery is intended to replace a natural gas boiler and will be similar in size to a small house or a large truck trailer. If Antora is successful, it will sell to large industrial companies, offering a zero-emissions alternative at a lower price.
“Antora generates heat and electricity from solar energy at cheaper prices than burning gas,” Sacca wrote in an email. “The oil and gas industry can deny climate change all they want, but buyers will always choose the lowest price option, which means no more fossil fuels.”
For now, Antora is still a lab project. CEO Andrew Ponec said he doesn’t expect deployments to begin until late 2023.
“It’s only in recent years that wind and solar have become cheap enough to be able to directly compete with fossil fuels for something like process heat,” Ponec said in an interview. “It wouldn’t make sense to do what we’re doing if you didn’t have this massive change in the energy landscape over the last few years.”
Ponec has been in the industry long enough to see change. He previously launched Dragonfly Systems, a solar company acquired by SunPower in 2014. A few years after the acquisition, he returned to Stanford to complete his degree in energy systems engineering.
It was there that he met co-founder Justin Briggs. They connected with David Bierman, who had just started a company with the same vision. The three joined forces to start Antora.
“The biggest opportunity we saw was how to take all that very cheap wind and solar and apply it to different areas of the economy that produce a lot of carbon,” Ponec said.
The Antora Energy prototype being assembled.
Photo courtesy of Trace Cody, Antora Energy.
A toaster for carbon blocks
The industrial market isn’t as visible to the public as consumer-focused products like Tesla’s electric cars. But it’s just as critical when it comes to decarbonization.
“Finding climate-friendly solutions to provide high-temperature thermal heat for industrial processes is an important and difficult challenge that we are trying to address,” said Carmichael Roberts, investor at Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Ponec said Antora’s technology acts “like a toaster.” The machine heats the carbon, which is then insulated, retaining the energy as heat until it is needed for things like cement and steel making.
“Calcination of limestone only occurs at temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius, so you need to have very high temperature storage in order to cause this reaction to make cement,” Ponec said.
To reach these levels of heat, energy must be stored at even higher temperatures, because “temperature only flows down,” Ponec said.
It may seem counterproductive to build decarbonization technology that relies on carbon.
Ponec says there are two reasons for this. First, the chemical properties of carbon allow it to remain in solid form until it is heated to 3600 degrees Celsius, the highest temperature of all the elements. Thus, there is no fear of it melting or vaporizing.
The second reason, Ponec said, is that carbon is cheap and solid carbon is already used in the aluminum and steel industries, so supply chains are up and running.
“Low cost is clearly good, and existing supply chains were a must,” Ponec said. “We’ve seen too many promising climate companies struggle to scale despite promising technology.”
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