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Electrically conductive bricks could pave way for replacement of fossil fuels

electrically conductive bricks could pave way for replacement of fossil fuels
Electrically Conductive Bricks: A New Path to Replacing Fossil Fuels?

New Delhi, May 28: According to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a startup in Medford, Massachusetts, might be on the verge of a groundbreaking development in clean energy technology, citing Inside Climate News where the news article first appeared.


Electrified Thermal Solutions (ETS), an MIT spinoff, is testing an innovation that could significantly advance the clean energy transition. At a warehouse laboratory, ETS operates what its founders call the Joule Hive—a thermal battery the size of an elevator.


This device is a large, insulated metal box filled with ceramic bricks that convert electricity into heat at temperatures up to 1,800 degrees Celsius, far beyond the melting point of steel, and can retain heat for several days.


As the cost of renewable energy plummets, a major challenge remains: converting electricity to high-temperature heat to avoid burning coal or natural gas in heavy industries. Another challenge is storing energy—specifically heat—when solar and wind power are unavailable.


Daniel Stack, CEO of ETS, in the article, emphasised the mission to decarbonise industry with electrified heat, stating, “If you are running an industrial plant where you’re making cement or steel or glass or ceramics or chemicals or even food or beverage products, you burn a lot of fossil fuels.”


The industrial sector is responsible for nearly a quarter of direct greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and across the globe contributing significantly to climate change.


Thermal batteries powered by renewable energy could potentially reduce these emissions by half, as reported by the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions and the Renewable Thermal Collaborative.


Replacing fossil fuel combustion with electric heat poses a significant challenge due to the lack of effective options for producing high-temperature heat from electricity.

While common electric heaters work well at low temperatures, they fail at higher ones. The authors say that materials like molybdenum and silicon carbide can withstand higher temperatures but are too expensive.

As an MIT grad student, Stack explored the possibility of using firebricks, commonly used in fireplaces and kilns, as a durable and cost-effective solution. By modifying the composition of the metal oxides in these bricks,

Stack and co-founder Joey Kabel created bricks that conduct electricity and generate heat. “There’s no exotic metals in here, there’s nothing that’ll burn out,” Stack said, in the article.

MIT nuclear engineering research scientist Charles Forsberg, Stack’s former thesis advisor and a company advisor, expressed confidence in the technology’s commercial potential. He highlighted a concern that many clean energy technologies invented in the US often find commercial success abroad.

Recent government funding has provided ETS with significant support. In January, ETS received a $5 million grant from the US Energy Department to build its first commercial-scale demonstration project at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

This project aims to show how the thermal battery can provide high-temperature heat for industrial processes like cement manufacturing, which currently relies heavily on coal.

The article quoting Massimo Toso, CEO of Buzzi Unicem USA, an industrial partner with ETS on the grant, praised the thermal battery as the first industrial heat decarbonization solution that could potentially eliminate fossil fuels cost-effectively.

Curt Jawdy, a senior manager with the Tennessee Valley Authority, noted that ETS’s ability to charge the thermal battery during off-peak hours allows for industrial decarbonization without straining the electric grid.

The project would replace natural gas-fired boilers at the Calvert City plant with ETS’s thermal batteries, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from steam generation by nearly 70%.

In 2022, Ashland reported releasing 72,000 tons of carbon dioxide from natural gas combustion at the plant, equivalent to the emissions of 17,000 automobiles.

ETS continues to scale up its capabilities, recently receiving its first multi-ton order of bricks from an industrial manufacturer. “Now, if you want two tons, [or, if] you want 2,000 tons, the manufacturer is ready to do that for us,” Stack said. If successful, this will be a perfect alternative to replacing fossil fuel.