Technology

Bill Gates and Chris Sacca Invest in Energy Storage Start-Up Antora to Help Heavy Industry Go Green

Photo courtesy Antora Energy
  • Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Lowercarbon Capital co-led a $50 million financing round in Antora Energy, a start-up looking to decarbonize industrial processes.
  • The thermal battery would store heat from solar and wind farms and provide an alternative to the natural gas boilers that are used by heavy industrial processing companies.
  • Antora CEO Andrew Ponec said the technology can work now because of the plummeting price of renewable energy in recent years.

Decarbonization at the scale necessary to meet global warming mitigation targets will require a radical rethinking of global infrastructure. Heavy industry is a large and often overlooked piece of the puzzle.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has researched the issue extensively. In his 2021 book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster," Gates wrote that the process of making things like cement, steel and plastic is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. That's largely because the high-temperature heat needed for industrial processes typically comes from natural gas.

Gates, through investing arm Breakthrough Energy Ventures, is now backing a start-up that's at the very early stages of addressing the problem through technology.

Founded in 2018, Antora Energy takes zero emissions energy from renewable energy sources, like wind and solar farms, and converts that to heat, which it stores in solid carbon blocks that are insulated in a kind of thermal battery. From there, the stored energy is used as heat in industrial processes needed to make materials like cement and steel, or it's converted into electricity.

In its efforts to reach its ambitious goals, Antora said Wednesday that it raised $50 million in a financing round led by Breakthrough and Chris Sacca's Lowercarbon Capital. Energy giant Shell's venture arm also contributed to the deal.

The Antora thermal battery is meant 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 be selling to large industrial companies, providing a zero-emissions alternative at a lower price.

"Antora makes heat and electricity from solar at prices cheaper 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 lower price option, and that means lights out for fossil fuels." 

Photo by Nicola Gell

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 the last few years that you've had wind and solar get cheap enough that you may be able to compete directly with fossil fuels for something like industrial heat," Ponec said in an interview. "It wouldn't make sense to do what we're doing if you didn't have that massive shift in the energy landscape over the last few years."

Ponec has been around the industry long enough to see the change. He previously started Dragonfly Systems, a solar company that was acquired by SunPower in 2014. A couple years after the acquisition, he went back to Stanford to complete his degree in energy systems engineering.

That's where he met co-founder Justin Briggs. They connected with David Bierman, who had just launched a company with the same vision. The three joined forces to start Antora.

"The biggest opportunity that we saw was how to take all of this very inexpensive 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 Trace Cody, Antora Energy.
The Antora Energy prototype being assembled.

A toaster for blocks of carbon

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 supply high temperature thermal heat for industrial processes is an important and difficult challenge that we are trying to address," said Carmichael Roberts, an investor at Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Ponec said Antora's technology acts "just like a toaster." The machine heats up carbon, which is then insulated, holding the energy as heat until it's needed for things like making cement and steel.

"The calcination of limestone only occurs at temperatures above 1,000 Celsius, and so you have to have very high temperature storage in order to to drive that reaction to make cement," Ponec said.

To reach those levels of heat, the energy has to be stored at even higher temperatures, because "temperature only flows downhill," Ponec said.

It may seem counterproductive to build decarbonization technology that depends on carbon.

Ponec says there are two reasons for it. First, the chemical properties of carbon allow it to stay in solid form until heated to 3,600 degrees Celsius, the hottest temperature of any element. Thus, there's no concern it will melt or vaporize.

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 was a must," Ponec said. "We've seen too many promising climate companies struggle to scale up despite promising technology."

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