Technology · June 27, 2024

These climate tech companies just got $60 million

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

Some people track sports scores or their favorite artists’ tour set lists. Meanwhile, I’m just waiting to hear which climate tech startups are getting big funding awards from government agencies. It’s basically the same thing. 

Every few years, the US agency that’s often called the “energy moonshot factory” announces such awards for a few companies to help them scale up their technology. (The agency’s official name is the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy, or ARPA-E.) The grants are designed to help companies take their tech from the lab or pilot stage and get it out into the world. 

The latest batch of these awards was just announced, totaling over $63 million split between four companies. Let’s dig into the winners and consider what each one’s technology says about their respective corners of climate action. 

Antora Energy: Heat batteries for industry

Let’s start with the company you’re most likely to know if you follow this newsletter: Antora Energy. The California-based company is building thermal batteries for use in heavy industry. I covered the company and its first pilot project last year, and thermal batteries were the readers’ choice winner on our list of Breakthrough Technologies this year. 

In case you need a quick refresher, the basic idea behind Antora’s technology is to store energy from cheap, clean wind and solar power in the form of heat, and then use that heat in industrial facilities. It’s an elegant solution to the problem that renewables are available only sometimes, while industry needs clean energy all the time if it wants to cut its carbon emissions, which amount to a whopping 30% of the global total. 

Antora was awarded $14.5 million to scale its technology. One thing the company hopes to achieve with the cash influx is progress on its second product, which delivers not only heat but also electricity. 

Queens Carbon: Lower-emissions cement

Cement is a climate villain hiding in plain sight, as I’ve covered in this newsletter before. Producing the gray slabs that scaffold our world accounts for about 7% of global emissions. 

The challenge in cleaning up the process lies, at least in part, in the fact that lava-hot temperatures are required to kick off the chemical reactions that make cement—I’m talking over 1,500 °C (2,700 °F). 

Queens Carbon developed a new process that cuts down the temperature needed to under 540 °C (1,000 °F). Still toasty, but easier to reach efficiently and with electricity, the company’s CEO, CTO, and cofounder Daniel Kopp said on a press call about the awards. Ideally, that electricity will be supplied with renewables, which could mean big emissions savings.

Queens Carbon will also pocket $14.5 million, and the funding should help with the construction of a pilot plant currently being built in partnership with a major cement producer, Kopp said on the press call. The company plans to scale up to a full-size plant in late 2028 or 2029. 

Ion Storage Systems: Next-generation batteries for EVs

The world is always clamoring for better batteries, and Maryland-based Ion Storage Systems wants to deliver with its solid-state lithium-metal technology.

We named lithium-metal batteries one of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies in 2021. The chemistry could deliver higher energy density, meaning longer range in EVs. 

Ion Storage Systems is planning to produce its batteries first for military customers. With the funding ($20 million worth), the company may be able to get its tech ready for larger-scale production for the wider customer base of the electric-vehicle market. 

I was really interested to hear about the emphasis on manufacturing from CTO Greg Hitz on the press call, as scaling up manufacturing has been a major challenge for other companies trying to build solid-state batteries. Hitz also said that the company’s batteries don’t need to be squeezed at high pressure within cells or heated up, and they can be more simply integrated into battery packs. 

AeroShield Materials: High-tech insulation for more efficient buildings

Last but certainly not least is AeroShield Materials. Between 30% and 40% of energy we put into our buildings for heat and cooling is lost through windows and doors—that’s about $40 billion per year for residential buildings, said Elise Strobach, the company’s CEO and cofounder, on the press call. 

AeroShield is making materials called aerogels that are clear, lightweight, and fire resistant. They can help make windows 65% more energy efficient, Strobach says. 

Insulation isn’t always the most exciting topic, but efficiency is one of the best ways to cut down the need for more energy and provide a straightforward way to slash emissions. AeroShield is starting with windows and doors but plans to explore other projects like retrofitting windows and producing insulation for freezer and refrigerator doors, Strobach said on the call. The $14.5 million award will help build a pilot manufacturing facility. 

These projects cover a huge range of businesses, from transportation and buildings to heavy industry. The one thing they have in common? All urgently need to clean up their act if the world is going to address climate change. Each of these awards is a big vote of confidence from an agency that’s had a lot of experience in energy technology—but what really matters is what these companies do with the money now. 

Now read the rest of The Spark

Related reading

I spoke with ARPA-E director Evelyn Wang last year about how the agency hopes to shape the future of energy technology. 

To see why readers chose thermal batteries as the 11th Breakthrough Technology, check out this story from April.

Cement is one of climate’s hardest problems, as I covered in a feature story about startup Sublime Systems earlier this year.

collage of cloudy skies with money and a control panel of knobs and indicators


Another thing

There’s a growing pool of money for scientists exploring whether we can reflect away more sunlight to ease warming caused by climate change. 

Quadrature Climate Foundation is among the organizations providing millions of dollars for research into solar geoengineering. This sort of funding can help scientists pursue lab work, modeling, and maybe even outdoor experiments that could improve our understanding of the often controversial field. 

For more on where the money is coming from and how this might affect our efforts to address climate change, check out my colleague James Temple’s story here

One more issue

We often talk about tech that’s serious business—but technology also has a huge effect on how we have fun. That’s the idea behind our latest print edition, the Play issue

For the issue, I wrote about board games that take on the topic of climate change. Are they accurate about the challenge ahead, and crucially, can they be fun? Check out my take here. (For a more in-depth look at one particular game, a new climate-themed Catan, give this newsletter a read.) 

I’d also highly recommend this feature from my colleague Eileen Guo, who looked into the growing business of surf pools—facilities that bring a usually ocean-based activity onto land. She gave one a spin, and considered how these spots affect places facing water scarcity. 

The whole issue is great—find all the stories here

Keeping up with climate  

A new startup will take sodium sulfate, a waste material from manufacturing lithium-ion batteries, and turn it into chemicals that can go into new batteries. Aepnus Technology calls its approach a “fully circular” one. (Heatmap)

Solugen just scored a loan worth over $200 million from the US Department of Energy. The company uses biology to make chemicals used in industries from agriculture to concrete. (C&EN News)

Some Olympic teams, including the delegation from the US, plan to bring their own air conditioners to the Paris games this summer. It could be a big setback for the event’s climate goals. (Associated Press)

Advanced recycling promises an almost miraculous solution to our plastics crisis, but a close look at the industry reveals some problems. Very little plastic is made with these methods, and the industry is selling them on the basis of some tricky accounting. (ProPublica)

You may not know the name Yet-Ming Chiang, but you’ve probably heard of some of the companies he’s had a hand in starting, including Sublime Systems and Form Energy. Learn more about this MIT professor and serial entrepreneur here. (Cipher)

Running Tide had grand plans to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere with the help of the ocean. Now, the startup is shutting down. Here’s what the company’s implosion means for carbon removal’s future. (Latitude Media)

→ The company was in some rocky waters a couple of years ago, as my colleague James Temple revealed at the time. (MIT Technology Review)

Volkswagen is investing $1 billion in the EV startup Rivian. The deal has the two companies creating a joint venture, and it could provide a path forward for Rivian, which has faced some struggles getting its vehicles to market. (” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>TechCrunch)

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