Credit: Electrified Thermal Solutions

Electrified Firebricks May The Answer To Low Carbon Process Heat

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Virtually every industry uses high temperatures as part of the manufacturing process. Process heat is an essential part of making steel or glass or cement, for example, industrial operations that require high temperatures that result from burning stuff, usually coal or methane gas. But burning stuff is what has gotten us into the climate mess we are in today. If there is a flame, there are emissions from the combustion process, things like carbon dioxide and often oxides of sulfur and nitrogen as well. There are also pesky little things like fine particulates that get into our lungs and lead to pulmonary and cardiovascular disease. We don’t even want to think what those pesky little devils are doing to our brains.

Process heat is essential to most manufacturing. Now a pair of clever MIT graduates — Daniel Stack and Joey Kabel — say they have invented a way to supply that process heat in a way that does not rely on combustion. The pair founded a new company called Electrified Thermal Solutions to commercialize their invention. The idea originated with Stack, who found himself wondering one day if there was a way to heat the firebricks that normally line the inside of fireplaces and industrial kilns with electricity. The concept was sound, but as a practical matter, bricks don’t ordinarily conduct electricity, so he set about making bricks that would.

He and Kabel found that by slightly altering the recipe of the metal oxides used to make firebricks, they were able to create bricks that could essentially take the place of wires to conduct electricity and generate heat. “There’s no exotic metals in here, there’s nothing that’ll burn out,” Stack told Inside Climate News recently. Stack and Kabel have now taken those altered firebricks and stacked them inside an insulated metal enclosure about the size of an elevator they call a Joule Hive.

On its website, the nascent company says their Joule Hive thermal battery enables two characteristics with profound implications for decarbonizing industry globally. The first is that the electrically conductive firebrick is the first heating element that can convert electricity to temperatures up to 1,800°C that can scale to electrify the highest temperature, hardest to abate sectors, including steel, cement, glass, and chemicals. The second is that these high temperatures correlate to unprecedented energy density which enables the cost effective storage of that thermal energy with >95% efficiency and therefore cheap off-peak electricity can be used to bring the cost of decarbonizing below or close to parity with existing fossil fuel sources.

The Joule Hive thermal battery is a stack of electrically conductive firebricks in an insulated steel container and an electrical balance of plant. The Joule Hive thermal battery charges by running electricity directly through the bricks to joule-heat them up to 1800°C. The thermal energy is stored at that temperature and then the system is discharged by running air or another gas through the brick channels to provide heat to any furnace, boiler, turbine, or kiln.

One of Electrified Thermal Solution’s biggest champions is MIT nuclear engineering research scientist Charles Forsberg, Stack’s former thesis advisor and an advisor to the company. “I have no doubt that this is going to go commercial,” Forsberg told Inside Climate News. “I’m 77. It’s just sort of an intuitive feel of 50 years in the game.” Fosberg, Stack, Kabel, and MIT are all joint owners of the patent for electrified firebricks.

Process Heat & Politics

One concern Forsberg has is that this new process heat technology benefits US manufacturers. It’s a legitimate concern, considering how America went to sleep and let the Chinese dominate the technology for lithium-ion batteries, electric car manufacturing, and solar panel production.

In January,  the company received a $5 million Department of Energy grant to help build its first commercial-scale demonstration project at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, an independent organization that provides contract research and development services to government and industrial clients. The project will demonstrate how the thermal battery could provide high temperature heat for a number of industrial processes including cement manufacturing, which currently relies primarily on burning coal for heat.

Buzzi Unicem USA is one of the largest cement producers in the US and an industrial partner with ETS on the DOE grant. Massimo Toso, the president and CEO of Buzzi Unicem USA, has nothing but praise for the company’s thermal battery. He says the Joule Hive thermal battery is “the first industrial heat decarbonization solution we have identified that could potentially enable us to cost effectively and completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels in our heating processes.”

CleanTechnica readers will immediately notice that burning fossil fuels is only part of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with making cement. The other part is the carbon dioxide released when that heat is use to convert limestone into cement. Another MIT spin-off — Sublime Systems — is greatly reducing carbon emissions from both parts of the cement-making process

In March, Ashland, a specialty chemical manufacturer based in Wilmington, Delaware, was awarded up to $35 million in a matching grant from the Department of Energy to fund the first commercial deployment of the Joule Hive thermal batteries at Ashland’s ISP Chemicals plant in Calvert City, Kentucky. That facility requires large volumes of high temperature steam to run its operations, which is exactly the sort of process heat the new technology is designed to supply.

Curt Jawdy, a senior manager with the Tennessee Valley Authority, a partner on the grant and the local electric utility for Calvert City, said the company’s ability to charge its thermal batteries during off-peak hours allows industrial facilities to decarbonize without placing greater strain on the utility’s electric grid. “Simpler is always better,” he said. “The fact that the brick is also the heating element, and you just supply electricity to the brick itself, simplifies the system significantly.” The project will eventually replace natural gas-fired boilers at the Calvert City plant with Joule Hive thermal batteries. Air blown through the Joule Hive batteries will heat water to generate the required steam.

The project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with steam generation at the plant by nearly 70%, according to the DOE. In 2022, Ashland released 72,000 tons of carbon dioxide from burning natural gas at the plant, according to data the company reported to the Environmental Protection Agency. Those emissions are equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 17,000 automobiles, a significant source of climate pollution in a town of 2,500 people, the EPA says.

There’s another industry that uses a lot of process heat — electricity generation. The same high temperature steam that Ashland uses is exactly what powers the generators that make much of our electricity. This technology opens the door to converting thermal generating stations to low carbon operation by eliminating the need to burn coal or methane to produce steam. Since the Joule Hive thermal battery can store heat for several days, it could open a new path to producing electricity when the output of renewable energy sources is low. Rather than tearing down existing generating stations, the existing generators could continue to be powered by steam as they are today, except the steam would be the result of thermal heat storage rather than the combustion of fossil fuels.

The Takeaway

Here’s another new technology that offers a way to continue enjoying the benefits of a modern society without the drawbacks that come from burning fossil fuels. This is new technology and will naturally have a certain learning curve before it is fully developed. That being said, the one possible drawback to this way for making process heat without carbon emissions is that everybody everywhere is thinking of ways to put excess renewable electricity to work. Many see it as a way to make green hydrogen. Electrified Thermal Solutions wants to use it to make some of the process heat that industries rely on.

All of this presupposes there will always be an abundance of surplus renewable energy — an assumption that may be overly optimistic at a time when political battles over renewables are growing more intense. The world has the tools to eliminate a significant portion of the greenhouse gas emissions that come from burning stuff — coal and methane primarily, but combustion of any kind has negative consequences for the environment and for human health.

The industrial world will come to a halt with process heat, but the Earth’s ability to support human life will come to a halt if we continue burning fuels to make process heat. It is a conundrum, one we need to resolve soon or face dire consequences. The Joule Hive thermal battery may well be an important part of solving that riddle.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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