A huge amount of energy consumption on our planet goes into creating heat, and not only that, but a great amount of that energy is wasted and byproducts like CO2 are blown into the atmosphere. Modern Electron could change that with a new system that captures the emissions and produces clean hydrogen directly in a home or building. $30 million in Series B funding will power the upcoming push to become a household name.
Natural gas is the most common way homes, apartment buildings and offices create heat. It’s a pretty simple process: you burn the gas, it produces heat, carbon dioxide and water. The heat is channeled in, the other things are channeled through.
But as Tony Pan, co-founder and CEO of Modern Electron, explained, this may be useful, but it’s not ideal (although it’s admittedly much better than oil and coal).
“If you burn fuel just for heat, that’s very wasteful from a physics standpoint,” he said. “If you were to burn natural gas, coal or biofuels in a power plant, you would first generate electricity, because electricity has about four times the value of heat. The reason we don’t do that is that you can’t bring power plant technology down 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.”
However, by combining two new technologies, Pan hopes to achieve something like that holy grail.
The first technology is called a thermionic converter, and this is where the Modern Electron in Seattle made its first pitch. The soda can size is a compact and efficient heat-to-energy converter, which takes the heat produced by an oven and converts it into electricity.
The second, still under development but about to debut, is what they call the modern electron reserve, which instead of burning natural gas – which is usually CH4 or methane – reduces it to solid carbon (in the form graphite) and hydrogen gas. The gas is sent to the furnace to be burned and converted to both heat and energy, while the graphite is collected for disposal or reuse.
You might be, like me, suspicious that introducing some conversions and processes here would have a serious effect on the efficiency of the whole system, thermodynamically speaking.
“There’s no free lunch, that’s true,” Pan said. “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 power is more valuable than heat, you can even get out of it economically. You subsidize the extra costs, as it were.”
In fact, users should not see any increase in gas consumption at all – the energy that would normally have escaped from your home in other forms remains in the system to the extent that your electricity needs should be easily covered.
As for the carbon this reaction produces, it requires something of a shift in thinking. Right now, heat is a kind of magic. You turn it on, the house heats up and you get a bill. But if you use a system equipped with Modern Electron technology, you get a kilo or two of graphite – pure carbon dust – every day. (That’s about a liter, or a can full.)
“Dirty,” you may be thinking, “should I just throw this stuff away?” Well, the fact is, you’ve been throwing it out all the time – into the atmosphere. Pan called it the “giant dumping ground in the sky,” and it’s where we’ve put our carbon from the very beginning. Now you can just see your carbon footprint more easily (but try not to spill it).
This pure carbon dust is not what you would call toxic, it is essentially pencil shavings. As a solid, it’s actually an effective store of the carbon for a few hundred or a thousand years, even if it’s in a landfill somewhere. In addition, facilities such as offices or hospitals that use a lot of heat would likely produce enough carbon solids, and in locations suitable enough for collection, that it could be sold to industries that could use it.
However, Modern Electron doesn’t intend to replace your entire heating and electricity stack; For example, Pan pointed out that in the summer, when a house needs very little heat, it will generate a correspondingly small amount of power.
It’s all about decarbonizing whatever heat you have to do use, and hopes to integrate with existing HVAC providers rather than reinvent the wheel. The thermionic converter fits right in with no increase in volume, and the gas-to-hydrogen converter takes up no more space than any other small piece of equipment. Pan said there is a huge opportunity to decarbonize not only homes, but also buildings large enough to be major consumers of gas, but not large enough to run the large-scale industrial infrastructure or even fuel cell technology like Bloom’s.
The timing is right – the EU will soon require new furnaces and boilers to be hydrogen compatible (and old ones can be converted quite easily), but there’s no sign of a global hydrogen economy on the scale it would take to transition from natural gas. On-site conversion with little or no loss and significant benefits could set the new standard for heating hundreds of millions of buildings. Not a bad place to be as a startup, which is probably why the company has attracted continued investment.
The $30 MB round had new investors in At One Ventures, the fund co-founded by former Google X head Tom Chi, along with Extantia, Starlight Ventures, Valo Ventures, Irongrey and Wieland Group. Previous investors Bill Gates (the man, not the foundation) and MetaPlanet also continued their investment and expanded.
Funding will go towards further product development and the upcoming pilot tests with major HVAC OEMs, which Pan says should be operational next year. They also hire people, he added, especially in the Seattle area.
If Modern Electron technology becomes mainstream, and the trend away from oil and coal continues, the natural gas could make a much cleaner and more viable complement (and already with a strong global presence) for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.