In this episode, we discuss the game-changing journey of two MIT alumni who are revolutionizing industry energy use practices by introducing a remarkable thermal battery solution to make sustainable energy feasible at a commercial scale. Join us as we dive into the world of clean energy transitions, industry transformation, and the inspiring story of the friendship behind it all.
If you're interested in green energy, you might be surprised to find out that batteries are actually the Achilles heel of renewable energy. But hold on to your seats folks, we're going to jump into it in this episode. MIT's thermal batteries are the ones that are going to rewrite that story and help fix the problem.
I'm Daniel, and I'm Farbod. And this is the NextByte Podcast. Every week, we explore interesting and impactful tech and engineering content from Wevolver.com and deliver it to you in bite sized episodes that are easy to understand, regardless of your background.
Daniel: What's going on everyone? Like we said, today we're talking all about this new thermal battery from a team that's, actually a bunch of MIT alum. I think there's actually like one or two different startups in play here. But to kind of zoom out and set the picture, we're talking about renewable energy, renewable energy like solar and wind, one of the known Achilles heels of these technologies is that they have a really inconsistent power distribution throughout the day or throughout the year. If you can think about it, sometimes there's a lot of sun, sometimes there's very little, sometimes there's a lot of wind, sometimes there's very little. And the fundamental flaw there with that is not actually that we can't harvest that power, we actually do a pretty good job of harvesting that power, but then the electrical grid which is how we actually deliver power to our homes and businesses. That's the part that really, really struggles to handle these ups and downs very efficiently. So, we've got a decent method of collecting energy from these renewable sources, but then we have challenges actually using them because of these, you know, you can call them like peaks and valleys in the production of energy, the grid can't handle that well. If you think about it, when there's tons and tons of renewable energy, its value on the grid goes down. The grid is actually really inefficient at handling those peaks of power, which then discourages new investments in renewable projects in these areas where there's lots of changes in sun and wind, et cetera.
Farbod: Absolutely. And like we even see kind of issues like this with like consumer solar setups as well, right? So, you want to get the, what solar city is Tesla solution for solar power. You get the solar cell set up in your house. Now you gotta get the power wall, or yeah, it's called the power wall, the battery to like kind of store that energy when you're not using it, but it's being produced at peak times. I think some people are able to put it back into the grid and get some money back, but some states are passing legislation kind of against that. So, it's like causing all these weird problems that need to be addressed somehow, right? And that's kind of the genius of what's happening here. But I feel like before we get into the actual like the sauce, right, we should take a step back because this article has pretty much all of our favorite things about a good article. But one of the main ones is that it's got a good story. Exactly. It's got a solid story. So, we're going all the way back to 2016. We got Bierman and is it Kearns or Kearns?
Daniel: I'm gonna say Kearns.
Farbod: All right, I'm gonna stick with you because English is my second language. We got Kearns and Bierman. They meet in this graduate course at MIT, which by the way, I think this course is a signifier of what was gonna come from these two people. Climate and Energy Ventures, that was the name of the course, right? And they both recognize that these intermittent bursts of energy is actually a good thing. Even in our discussion, we're pointing it out as a negative. But no, they were like, this is an opportunity, but how do we capitalize on it? And that's where their mentality kind of shifted from one another. Because in one side, we got Kearns, who's like, look, I think this is going to be some really cheap energy that we can actually like go to companies and give them a very logical reason for why they shouldn't burn fossil fuels, right? Like even if you don't care about the environment, which everyone should, this is just cheaper. So, when we have that peak energy, let us transition to this. And then whenever we don't have cheap energy, when it doesn't financially make sense anymore, we'll go back to fossil fuels. Companies like that idea. He pitched it. He got some like funding from MIT, I think. And then in 2017, he spun up a company called Medley, Medley kept growing. They have this, I think it's called a resort, the Jay Peak Resort in Vermont, where it's one of the biggest projects in the United States that uses renewables for generating heat. And on a year-to-year basis, they were on track to cut 2,500 tons of carbon dioxide emissions by helping out companies in this manner. So, like absolutely genius idea. But then on the other side, you got Bierman. And Bierman was like, actually, you know what? I’m curious on how we can make the energy storage method better. So, in these peak hours, like, you know, people are, again, looking at power walls, like batteries, like, well, how can we store this energy? That's what I'm gonna sink my energy into. And what Bierman came up with through the funding that he got from MIT and eventually raising a series A, is a energy storage technique by using these carbon blocks, like a resistive heater, which can soak up that energy as heat. And then whenever you need it, supply it back out and harvest it by thermal photovoltaics or even use it as heat again.
Daniel: What we're talking about here, and I don't wanna like derail too much from the story in favor of talking about the technology, but I think it's important to highlight is we're talking about using big, huge thermal masses as batteries, as storage methods for energy. So, they actually call them thermal batteries. This company, Antora Energy, big special box that basically is able to store extra electrical energy being produced by our solar panels or by our wind turbines, stores that extra energy as heat. And then when we need the energy, the box is able to help turn this heat back into power, electrical energy that we can use. So, it's very similar to a chemical battery in the way that it, you know, takes electricity and stores it as chemical energy. And then that gets converted back to electrical energy when you need to pull on that power. Very similar here, but we’re using carbon blocks as a resistive heater to store the electrical energy in a thermal form. And then we're able to release the thermal energy and consume it again in electrical energy. That's what we're talking about here. When you say Antora made, you know, these big carbon blocks, we're talking about using heat as a battery here. You know, heat as a storage method for energy excess electrical energy produced from renewable sources.
Farbod: And like as a general idea, it's not even that novel. You know, you and I took renewable energy engineering back in college, and geothermal is actually like a pretty good renewable method of getting energy, but it's not as popular because the output just can't be scaled like that because you're relying on nature. But the underlying principle is the same. You have a source of heat, you can use it to generate electricity, which is great. But now let's kind of like put the bow on the story. You know, Bierman raised this series A, $50 million, super awesome. And that's when they touch base together again, because he's like, hey, we used to work together, we had similar visions, we still have like, both companies have the same general idea of what we're trying to accomplish. Sorry about that noise, my cats are having a day. Why don't we come together, right? And that's when the company Antora pretty much buys out Medley and they become one with a single mission. Bierman has this incredible battery technology which can store the energy during peak hours instead of just saying, hey, company, we'll use renewable during peak hours and then go back off to fossil fuels. Now they can offer a solution that says, we might be able to give you 100% renewable energy by having this thing that can store that energy on site. Right? That's the beauty of it all. So now let's transition into actually what's happening here, the real sauce. Because the friendship is the part of the sauce, the story is part of the sauce, but the actual sauce is a little bit different. Yeah. So, you mentioned in the beginning, the big thing is the battery, right? And I would actually call this like a two-parter sauce. You got the battery, which is, you know, crazy innovative, but they also had breakthroughs in thermal photovoltaics. So, most of this podcast, every time we've like referred to photovoltaics, they've been about solar photovoltaics, right? So, you got the solar energy coming and that's what's resulting in the chain reaction in the photovoltaic cells to have an electron flow that gives you electricity. Thermal photovoltaics have the same principle, but they rely on thermal energy being emitted and captured and utilized. So that means you don't have to wait for the sun to be out shining to utilize those to get electricity out of it.
Daniel: And like, if you're not touching something and you still feel heat coming off of it, what you're actually feeling is thermal radiation. You're feeling light radiating off of this. It's emitting energy in the form of light, which you perceive as heat on your hands. That's like when you hover your hand over a hot pan in the stove and you can feel the heat from that, that's thermal radiation. It's just not a visible form of light. Thermal photovoltaics rely on this thermal radiation as a way of converting thermal energy heat into electrical energy, which again is something that's not quite the same as we're used to talking to when we talk about photovoltaics, which is like, you need the sun in the sky beating to do that. In this case, you can use heat radiating off of something and convert that back into electricity, which is what they're doing here with their big carbon blocks, turning those big hot carbon blocks back into electrical energy, which is just a crazy concept to me.
Farbod: Yeah, and because like what they've came up with is like a reverse fridge, right? Like here's this insulating chamber that's housing something incredibly hot, which by the way can emit temperatures up to 1500 degrees Celsius. I don't know what that is in Fahrenheit, but it's fricking hot, right? And now you have the state of the art, thermal photovoltaic cells that can capture that heat, turn it into electricity and help you power whatever you need to power. Or in some applications, you don't even need that. You can just use the heat to generate steam to turn a steam turbine, right? So, like it makes their solution a lot more application agnostic, if that makes sense.
Daniel: Yeah, and let's just talk about like the pure thermodynamics of it here. Right. Let's do it. We're talking about using a certain battery as a storage method for energy that was, that used to be electrical energy. Traditionally speaking, we've used chemical batteries as a pretty solid storage method for electrical or, you know, energy that, you know, was stemming from an electrical nature. The challenge there being that these chemical batteries perform really, really well the day you first use them. And then they slowly degrade and degrade and degrade over time. Right. One of the big pluses here of this thermal battery is that you don't see this same aggressive degradation over time to where after a couple thousand cycles or a certain percentage life of use of a battery, it becomes pretty much useless where you need twice as many of these batteries because the capacity is degraded so much these thermal batteries from Antora, they see them having a potentially larger storage capacity, degrading much slower, meaning they have a longer life. And then they also use materials like carbon that are potentially way more abundant in the world than these rare earth metals that we're using in our batteries and also less environmentally damaging to harvest. So, we've got like this, I like to call it like a, a really, really earth friendly version of the chemical battery and that it lasts longer, so you don't need to replace it as quickly. The materials that go into it are more abundant. And then they're also not as challenging on like not as intensive on the environment to manufacture. And those are a lot of the downfalls that we see when we talk about things that rely heavily on batteries today, even including other renewable energy storage sources, when you look at the full picture of it, the total emissions over the lifespan of that solution, including manufacturing, including the end of life of that material, the chemical batteries are like the Achilles heel of renewable energy storage solutions, because people will look at that and say like, how is that possibly better for the environment than me using fossil fuels? And if renewable and being environmentally friendly is one of the motivators there, which, like you said, it's not always a motivator for certain companies or certain organizations or certain heads of state. To whatever extent it is, thermal batteries, well well outperform chemical batteries on that scale, on that environmentally friendly scale, which makes it even more interesting for me because I'm like, a huge pet peeve for me is greenwashing where someone says like, I'm using solar panels. Like it must be better for the environment. Well, by the way, you're using like this battery with a ton of cobalt that like has a lot of ethical issues as well as environmental issues that went into the manufacturing of that. You know, I identify really strongly with this team from Antora, which is like, let's use the most, like one of the most abundant elements on earth, which is carbon. Let's do this in a way that it won't degrade much over time. So, you've got the ability to use it for a longer period of time. And by the way, it has a potentially larger storage capacity than chemical batteries anyway. So even if you didn't care about the environmental impact of it, it's still better.
Farbod: And, another big problem with batteries, as we're coming to realize with the shortages and needing to keep up with the demands of our cell phones or cars or whatever, is that they are a pain to recycle right now. Like we can't get all the lithium and cobalt back. With carbon on the other hand, we can actually like get back all of it. We can repurpose pretty much all of it. That's another, you know, plus that to consider here.
Daniel: And then you're not competing for the same resources that all these other electrification efforts are as well. I don't think it makes sense for you to have a giant thermal battery as the storage method for energy in your car. You don't want something that's 1500 Celsius or I looked at this 2700 Fahrenheit in the bottom of your car driving around. But if you're going to like bury this in an insulated cell underground right next to a solar farm, that makes a lot of sense.
Farbod: Exactly. And that's another thing I wanted to talk about, right? Like I mentioned earlier, there's companies that are not, they're not even gonna care about like the fact that you're saving the environment. It just financially makes sense to them, right? So, for those kind of people, it makes more sense to adapt to technologies like this when there's a clear value add which there is here and that it's frictionless. So, in my mind, you know, stay with me for a second because it might not make sense. This really reminds me of the Impossible Burger. For so long, they tried to sell us like, you know, here's like this vegetarian burger, it tastes just like meat, it doesn't. And you have the founder of Impossible Meats come up and say, it's like, hey, instead of like trying to get people to eat vegetables and force them to like it when it doesn't taste like the thing that they want, let's just completely scientifically mimic the experience 100%. And it's reached the point where like the average fast-food burger, honestly, I might take an Impossible Burger over it. Like if I go to Burger King and they offer the Impossible version, I might just take it over it. It's better for the environment, it's good for my taste buds. I'm a fan, right? So now you come here to this solution. And again, we talked about Tesla. I think Tesla brings massive batteries for you to hook up to your infrastructure. There's wiring you gotta do there. You gotta talk to the officials to get your power grid stuff figured out. I'm not totally familiar with it, but that's just the high level understanding I have of the situation. What Antora is doing here is like, hey, we have a modular system that'll literally ship to where you are and we'll plug it in and it'll just work. We're trying to get this to be as easy as it can possibly be so that no one has any reason to not go with this technology. So, not only do they have a killer tech which checks off a lot of boxes in terms of cost environmental friendliness, etc, etc. They've also made it easy for companies to sign up for this thing because there's a clear value at you save money and you help the environment if you're about that and It's not a pain to get set up.
Daniel: Yeah, and I view it as like I'm hoping this becomes something as commonplace as like, Oh, and you've got a huge production facility where you've got a really important data center. Sometimes as a part of that, they'll stand up like redundant power systems as a part of that, right. To make sure that they stay online, to make sure that they stay running. Because when uptime is really important and there's a power outage on the normal grid, you're going to want to have a redundant power source there. And it's not uncommon at all for these data centers in Northern Virginia, where we live to like come up in addition to creating like redundancies in the power grid, they also will like get natural gas generators and stuff like that. And that's not uncommon at all for them to buy these natural gas generators out of the box and just put them with every single data center project they manage and construct. They do that. I'm hoping that, when this makes sense from a thermodynamics perspective, from an economical perspective and from an environmental perspective, that whenever someone's creating a solar farm or a wind farm their first choice is going to be like, Oh, let's get this box from Antora energy. It's going to help us smooth our energy distribution curve over the day or over the week or over the month, into a manner that allows us to optimize power interaction with the grid. If we do this at every major solar farm or lots of major solar farms or lots of major wind farms, it will help address this really key problem right now with those forms of renewable energy, which is the fact that sometimes they're producing two times as much energy as the grid can handle. And then at night, these solar panels aren't producing anything at all. So, if you're able to smooth out those curves, it actually, it sounds a lot to me, like when we were talking about like sequestering, staying home during COVID to smooth out the curve, right? Because there's only a certain amount of capacity that the medical infrastructure could handle. It's very, very similar here. You're trying to smooth out the curve of energy production because there's only so much energy that the grid can handle. If they can do that, that helps increase the number of possible sites for renewable energy adoption. It helps make sense for people to create solar farms in areas that it currently doesn't, or wind farms in areas that it currently doesn't. I think it that's one of the key criticisms. I keep saying it, but the Achilles heel of renewable energy adoption as it stands today is the fact that you can produce as much renewable energy as you want, but if the grid can't handle the energy, it all goes to waste. This is a way of instead of taking on the challenge of fixing the entire grid, which is a multi-trillion-dollar project. Instead, you're converting these peaks and troughs of electricity into something that's more manageable for the grid to handle.
Farbod: And more advantageous for the end consumer, which is, you know, what they care about anyways.
Daniel: If you've got solar panels on your house, you would experience a very similar benefit using something like a Tesla power wall to help store some of that energy to smooth out the way that you're interacting with the grid. Sometimes you're able to use that energy yourself instead of sending it back into the grid and then drawing from the grid later. I see a lot of these efficiencies that we've seen for consumers for a long time being able to make sense now at the industrial scale with these thermal batteries from Antora Ventures.
Farbod: Yeah, and that's a great segue, by the way, because I think it's worth talking about where they're at right now and where they wanna go. So, at this time with a new manufacturing plant that they just recently opened up, they can produce enough thermophotovoltaics to harness to, or I guess generate 2 megawatts of electrical energy from the heat that is being outputted by these thermal batteries, right? So, I think that's a record in the either United States or globally. Like it's an impressive number. Then you have, now I mentioned Medley, they had this Jay Peak Park that's one of the biggest in the United States and that has an output of 3 megawatts. They said that they're currently working on projects with industry partners that range from the chemical industry, the food, the beverage, oil, gas, whatever, that range from 30 to 60 megawatts. That's the scale that they're working on. We're talking like 10 to 20 X increases. So that's impressive. That shows you what friendship can do and what coming together and putting two great brains can result in, which is super impressive. And what's even more promising to me is that they said some of these projects are actually expected to go online by early 2025, which seems like far away, but I feel like these past two, three years have flown by pretty quick and will be in 2025 before you know it. So that's, that's pretty impressive.
Daniel: No, I'm with you, man. And when we talk about stuff on this podcast and emerging technology trends, it's not often that we get like a concrete committed date. It's going to happen at this time, at this quarter during this year in the future. It's really exciting to understand the amount of traction that they have versus some of the other really, really early academic level innovations that we're talking about here that might take 5 to 10 years to ever find their way out into the real world. Whereas here we're talking about like four to six quarters instead.
Farbod: Yeah. What was that? What was that commercial that used to come on at night with the guy who was sending? I mean, selling those dishwasher cleaners. But wait, there's more.
Farbod: Yeah, yeah. So that's what I felt like reading this article because there's a great story. There is like great technology that was thought of like in an academia setting. Then the technology was made. Then it was actually like made to be a real thing in the world. And now it's being made accessible to more and more people with concrete deadlines. So, it's like all the things that we love to see in any project that we talk about on this podcast, this thing has it. So, it was a blast to talk about it, but I think it's worth doing a recap and you should lead the way with the ELI5.
Daniel: All right, I'll head us with a little recap here, man. Pretty much, like believe it or not, our modern batteries are actually the Achilles heel of our renewable energy story. And the reason that's the case is sun and wind are like big engines giving us power, but sometimes they're giving us way too much and sometimes they're giving us way too little. Our batteries suck at storing that energy over a long period of time. Our grid sucks at taking in that energy over a short period of time. So, these two friends from MIT that took a class together on renewable energy ventures went off, both started their own companies to try and solve this problem in different ways, ended up founding those different companies, and now they've joined forces to create a company called Antora Energy. What they've created is this little special box. It's a thermal battery that stores extra energy from renewable energy sources as heat. And then when we need the energy, the box is able to turn that heat back into electrical power that we can pump into the grid or use to turn on the lights or keep stuff like our iPhone's charged. Their goal is to get big companies to be able to use this, to always be able to use green energy. And we think that this is like even more exciting because it can unlock as a keystone kind of unlock more opportunities for more people to use renewable energy and for it to kind of make sense on an economical scale, as well as an environmental scale. And so far those incentives haven't necessarily been aligned. So, this kind of heat storage can be better for renewable energy. And then the big plus on top of all that is it's much greener and it actually lasts a lot longer than the chemical batteries that we've been traditionally using. And of course, we love the happy story with these two friends from college going out and starting a company and doing something interesting in the world. I think for the two of us, that's kind of like a future we'd love to be able to talk about at some point, right? We met taking classes at college. It would be awesome if we went out and solved a big problem in the world one day. So, this team from Antora Energy is really exciting for us in that respect as well.
Farbod: Money. That was very money. Very good stuff.
Daniel: Thanks, my dude.
Farbod: Yeah. Before I forget, folks in Saudi Arabia, thank you guys for the love. You made us trend again this past week. And am I missing anyone? I think that was it this past week. Yeah. Yeah. All right, folks, thank you so much for listening. And as always, we'll catch you in the next one.
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The Next Byte: We're two engineers on a mission to simplify complex science & technology, making it easy to understand. In each episode of our show, we dive into world-changing tech (such as AI, robotics, 3D printing, IoT, & much more), all while keeping it entertaining & engaging along the way.