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The race to clean up heavy industry is intensifying

The race to clean up heavy industry is intensifying


These bricks seek to address one of the biggest challenges facing the clean energy transition: finding a way to convert electricity from renewable sources, including solar and wind energy, into high-temperature heat that can be used for industrial processes , such as making cement or smelting iron ore to create steel.

Right now, steelmakers largely burn coal to heat furnaces, a process that hasn't changed much since the mid-1800s.

Joey Kabel (left), CTO, and Daniel Stack, CEO and co-founders of Electrified Thermal Solutions in Medford, stood next to the elevator-sized pilot system, which contains electrically charged bricks that generate and store heat. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

If you run an industrial plant making cement or steel or glass, or ceramics or chemicals or even food or beverage products, you're burning a lot of fossil fuels, says Daniel Stack, CEO of Electrified Thermal Solutions. Our mission is to decarbonize industry with electrified heat.

The industrial sector is responsible for nearly a quarter of all direct greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, which drive climate change. according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Thermal batteries powered by renewable energy could reduce about half of those emissions, according to researchers a 2023 report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a nonprofit organization, and its affiliated Renewable Thermal Collaborative.

The problem, Stack says, is that there aren't many good options available to produce high-temperature heat from electricity. Electric heaters, like the wires that glow red in a toaster, work well at low temperatures, but burn out quickly at higher temperatures. Other less common materials such as molybdenum and silicon carbide can withstand higher temperatures but are prohibitively expensive.

As a graduate student at MIT, Stack wondered whether refractory bricks, the bricks often used in fireplaces and industrial ovens, could be a cheaper and more sustainable solution. Bricks don't typically conduct electricity, but by slightly changing the recipe of the metal oxides used to make them, he and Electrified Thermal Solutions co-founder Joey Kabel were able to create bricks that could essentially take the place of wires to conduct electricity. conduct and generate heat.

There are no exotic metals in here; There's nothing that will burn out, Stack said, standing next to shelves of small samples that he and his team tested to find bricks with the best heating properties.

Detail of a cross-section of an electrically conductive stone. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

One of the biggest champions of startups is MIT nuclear energy researcher Charles Forsberg, Stack's former thesis advisor and now an advisor to the company.

“I have no doubt this will become commercial,” said Forsberg, who holds the patent on the technology along with Stack and MIT. I'm 77; it's just kind of an intuitive feeling from 50 years in the game.

Forsberg said his only concern is whether Electrified Thermal Solutions will be the ones to bring the technology to fruition, noting that many clean energy technologies were invented in the United States only to achieve commercial success in China.

Another benefit the company offers is the ability to store energy at a low cost for when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow. The same bricks that convert electricity at super-high temperatures can also retain that heat for days in the company's insulated Hive.

Recent government funding, including a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in January, and a new DOE grant of up to $35 million announced in March, have given the company a significant boost.

This latest grant would help finance the replacement of natural gas-powered boilers at a chemical plant in Calvert City, Kentucky. The bricks would reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the plant's steam generation by almost 70 percent. according to the DOE.

As Stack and his colleagues prepare to deploy their first Hives on a commercial scale, they continue to expand their capabilities. After several years of placing orders for small test batches with an existing brick manufacturer, ETS recently received its first multi-ton order.

Now if you want two tons, [or, if] you want 2,000 tons, the manufacturer is willing to do that for us, Stack said. Were off to the races.

This story was published in collaboration with Indoor climate newsan independent non-profit news organization covering climate, energy and the environment.




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