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Bill Gates-backed startup launches wildly hot thermal battery system: 'Uninterruptible, reliable supply of process heat'

"I think where the challenge is biggest is who funds units two or three through 10."

“I think where the challenge is biggest is who funds units two or three through 10."

Photo Credit: Getty

As the need to cool down our overheating planet becomes more pressing, companies are finding new ways to help. One company, backed by Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy, is doing its part to help cool the planet by getting carbon blocks really, really hot, Bloomberg reported.

Antora Energy, a thermal battery startup, has launched its first commercial-scale system at a facility in Fresno, California. The pilot project is a significant step toward getting heavy industry off dirty energy.

The International Energy Agency states that, in 2019, the power and heavy industry sectors accounted for about 60% of annual pollution, and Energy Innovation says they are projected to be the largest source of planet-warming pollution in the United States by 2030. 

Typical lithium-ion batteries store electricity as chemical energy. In contrast, Bloomberg explained, Antora's thermal battery system stores energy as electrically generated heat inside carbon blocks at temperatures upward of 3,272 degrees Fahrenheit (1,800 degrees Celsius). 

The system then converts the heat back to electricity using thermophotovoltaic cells similar to those found in solar panels and can directly discharge it as either heat or electricity. 

Industrial facilities like cement and steel plants need continuous heat and run on tons of dirty energy like coal and natural gas. Renewable energy sources are intermittent — there are also times when more solar or wind power is generated than the grid can handle, and the excess power is sometimes wasted. 

Antora's battery could smooth out intermittency issues, as it can take intermittent solar and wind power and convert it to an efficient, continuous supply of industrial heat and electricity.

Jon Glass, the acting deputy director for commercialization at the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a government entity that awarded Antora nearly $8 million as part of a program aimed at developing long-duration energy storage systems, told Bloomberg, "You can achieve the benefits of industrial CHP, combined heat and power, in a zero-carbon way." 

Breakthrough Energy partner Christina Karapataki further said, "What the plant really cares about is having an uninterruptible, reliable supply of process heat. Whether it's coming from a natural gas boiler or a coal-fired boiler, or whether it's coming from an Antora system heating up an oil pipeline, the plant really doesn't care." 

In the long run, Antora chief executive officer and co-founder Andrew Ponec told Bloomberg he sees a trajectory where an Antora system could best dirty energy on cost with no subsidies. 

"I think where the challenge is biggest is who funds units two or three through 10 where it's not the very first of a kind, but the technology still doesn't look yet like a solar or wind," he said. "There haven't been many years of operational data and so people still need to get into the details of evaluating if it is a risk that their company wants to take."

Antora is building a battery manufacturing facility in the Bay Area that it expects to complete by 2024 and plans to ship the technology to its first buyers in 2025.

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