Modern Electron aims to reduce the carbon footprint of homes, buildings, and industries currently heated with gas. They count Bill Gates as one of their co-founders.
Gas, despite high CO2 emissions, will stay the primary source for heating in the next decades. More than half of all energy consumption in the world results from heating. In total, 12.5 GtCO2 of emissions are caused by heat. Overall, this demand varies by climatic region, building efficiency, and available technology. Over two thirds of the world’s heat consumption occurs in China, India, North America, Europe, Eurasia and Russia. In the US and EU, natural gas is the predominant energy source. Most of that energy is used for space and water heating – in US homes it’s 50% and in EU homes it’s 80%.
The good news is that electricity generation costs are declining due to cheaper renewables. The bad news is that transmission and distribution costs have increased. In 2020, they made up 44% of total delivered electricity costs. And they continue to rise to support existing grid demand and capacity requirements. This doesn’t account for what “electrification of everything” is expected to bring online in terms of capacity needs. Demand for heat (and energy) is expected to drastically increase over the next few decades.
Modern Electron’s technology
Modern Electron, with investors including Bill Gates, aims to reduce the carbon footprint of homes, buildings, and industry currently heated via gas. They help consumers to save money, reduce carbon emissions, and increase resiliency during power outages.
Product 1: Reducing waste of energy in homes
Their first product takes excess heat from gas-powered boilers and furnaces and turns it into electricity, which can power houses. Modern Electron’s technology is adapted from space tech, where thermionic converters are used. Their advanced heat-to-electricity converter transforms boilers’ and furnaces’ heat into power for on-site use, utilizing otherwise wasted energy.
Product 2: Producing hydrogen and solid carbon
Modern Electron’s next generation technology is a carbon-neutral and scalable gas-to-hydrogen converter. They will be able to turn gas into hydrogen and solid carbon. This enables hundreds of millions of homes, buildings, and factories to operate more sustainably, since hydrogen can decarbonize parts of the economy that renewable electrification cannot (yet).
The dominant hydrogen generation technology of today generates gaseous CO2 as an end product from steam methane reforming. Modern Electron produces solid carbon. Compared to CO2, it doesn’t require compression and sealing in a specialized container. This makes solid carbon much cheaper to transport and sequester. It doesn’t leak and is more suited for measuring avoided emissions.
Buildings account for 40% of our CO2 emissions. Modern Electron enables a fast decarbonization of existing infrastructure.
For the phase I CHP product, the net carbon savings is around 1 tCO2/year per house. This translates to total savings of 300 MtCO2/year by 2050 in the US and Europe, if all households adopt the technology.
For the phase II CHP+hydrogen product, the total addressable impact would be approximately 5 GtCO2/year globally. Reminder: 12.5 GtCO2 of global emissions is attributable to heat generation and 40% of that heat is used for buildings. Those 5 gigatons are equivalent to 10% of total global GHG emissions.
Modern Electron’s natural gas to hydrogen conversion technology can also be applied to the hard-to-decarbonize, high process heat ubiquitous in the manufacturing industry. This could make the carbon impact even greater than 5 GtCO2 per year.
Modern Electron has joint partnerships with global heating appliance companies. They are currently designing and prototyping their drop-in technology to seamlessly fit inside the compact heat exchanger volumes. Their product will undergo testing and pilot scale production in 2022 and 2023, and will then be ready for commercial sales.
Long term, the networks will need to go “all hydrogen”, but in the meantime Modern Electron’s tech can be crucial in accelerating net-zero goals. Firstly, because it doesn’t require many decades to implement. Secondly, it doesn’t require trillions of dollars to overhaul energy transmission & distribution infrastructure.
Even though fossil fuel based heating appliances should be banned in new construction, the regulatory landscape favors the adoption of Modern Electron’s technology.
That’s because the main challenge is to decarbonize existing buildings, which represent 80% of heating appliance sales. In fact, it’s projected that 80% of buildings in 2050 have already been built today. And it is in these existing buildings where the retrofit cost and complexity has slowed adoption of electrification by renewables.
Modern Electron’s technology enables a drop-in solution for customers. The technology can be integrated in boilers and furnaces without changing their form factor or maintenance. Because they are compatible with hydrogen/natural gas blends, Modern Electron makes it possible to decarbonize gas-heating appliances. In addition, it allows customers to save energy, while not increasing the complexity or cost of the installation.