A huge amount of energy use on our planet goes into creating heat, and not only that, but a lot of that energy is wasted and by-products like CO2 are released into the atmosphere. modern electron could change that with a new system that captures emissions and produces clean hydrogen inside a home or building. $30 million in Series B funding will fuel its next effort to become a household name.
Natural gas is the most common way to generate heat in homes, apartment buildings and offices. It’s a very simple process: you burn the gas, it produces heat, carbon dioxide and water. The heat is channeled, the other things are channeled.
But as Modern Electron co-founder and CEO Tony Pan explained, this can be convenient, but not ideal (although it is much better than oil and coal).
“If you’re burning fuel just to heat it up, from a physics point of view it’s a big waste,” he said. “If you were burning natural gas, coal or biofuels in a power plant, you would be generating electricity first, because electricity has about four times the value of heat. The reason we don’t do that is that you can’t reduce power plant technology to the level of a commercial or residential building. This loss has been known for a century – if you can generate heat and electricity, it’s like a holy grail.”
By combining two new technologies, however, Pan hopes to achieve something like this holy grail.
The first technology is called a thermionic converter, and it’s what the Seattle-area Modern Electron did its first launch. About the size of a soda can, it’s a compact, efficient heat-to-energy converter that takes the heat produced by an oven and turns it into electricity.
The second, which is still in development but about to debut, is what they call the Modern Electron Reserve, which instead of burning natural gas – which is mostly CH4, or methane – reduces it to solid carbon (in the form of graphite). ) and hydrogen gas. The gas is passed to the furnace to be burned and converted into heat and energy, while the graphite is collected for disposal or reuse.
You might be, like me, suspicious that introducing various conversions and processes here would have a serious effect on the efficiency of the entire system, thermodynamically speaking.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch, it’s true,” said Pan. “In order not to release CO2 into the atmosphere, we don’t have that exothermic reaction [i.e. burning the gas]. But if you use it for heat and power, since energy is more valuable than heat, you can come out economically balanced. You kind of subsidize the extra cost.”
In fact, users shouldn’t see any increase in gas usage – energy that would normally escape your home in other ways stays in the system as your electricity needs should be covered easily.
As for the carbon this reaction produces, that requires a change in thinking. Right now, the heat is a kind of magic. You call, the house heats up and you get a bill. But if you’re using a system powered by Modern Electron’s technology, you’ll end up with a pound or two of graphite — pure carbon powder — every day. (That’s about a pint, or a full shovel.)
“Disgusting”, you might think, “do I just have to throw this stuff away?” Well, the fact is, you threw it away all the time – into the atmosphere. Pan called it the “giant dump in the sky,” and it’s where we put our carbon from the start. You can now view your carbon footprint more conveniently (but try not to spill it).
This pure carbon powder isn’t what you’d call toxic, being essentially pencil shavings. As a solid, it’s actually an effective carbon sink for a few hundred or thousands of years, even if it’s in a dump somewhere. Furthermore, facilities such as offices or hospitals that use a lot of heat would likely produce enough solids of carbon, and in locations convenient enough for collection, that it could be sold to industries that can use it.
Modern Electron isn’t looking to replace its entire heating and electricity stack; On the one hand, Pan pointed out, in the summer, when a house needs very little heat, it will generate a correspondingly small amount of energy.
It’s all about decarbonizing any heat you Does use, and hopes to integrate with existing HVAC providers rather than reinvent the wheel. Its thermionic converter fits perfectly without bulking up, and the gas-to-hydrogen converter takes up no more space than any other small appliance. Pan said there is a huge opportunity to decarbonize not just homes, but buildings big enough to be big gas consumers but not big enough to use large-scale industrial infrastructure or even fuel cell technology like Bloom’s. . This includes mid-sized industries with high heat requirements and things like steam production.
Timing is good – the EU will soon require new furnaces and boilers to be hydrogen compatible (and old ones can be converted quite easily), but there is no sign of a global hydrogen economy on the scale that would be needed for gas switching Natural. Converting it on-site with little to no loss and considerable benefits could be the new standard for heating hundreds of millions of buildings. It’s not a bad place to be, startup terms, which is probably why the company has attracted continued investment.
The $30MB round has new investors in At One Ventures, the fund co-founded by former Google X boss Tom Chi, along with Extantia, Starlight Ventures, Valo Ventures, Irongrey and Wieland Group. Past investors Bill Gates (the man, not the foundation) and MetaPlanet also continued and expanded their investments.
Funding will go towards continued product development and upcoming pilot tests with large HVAC OEMs, which Pan said should be up and running within the next year. they are also hiringadded, especially in the Seattle area.
If Modern Electron’s technology becomes popular and the trend away from oil and coal continues, this could make natural gas a much cleaner and more viable (and already with a strong global presence) complement to renewables like solar and wind.