In this episode of Hardware to Save a Planet, Dylan welcomes Peter Godart, Co-Founder and CEO of Found Energy, a company that turns aluminum into a source and carrier of carbon-free energy that competes with fossil fuels on price and energy density.
Join us as we delve into Found Energy’s innovative approach to generating carbon-free energy while tackling waste and recycling challenges and explore the potential of using aluminum as a sustainable energy source. Discover how Found Energy aims to revolutionize energy storage using recycled aluminum and reframing the aluminum supply chain.
Peter Godart is the Co-Founder and CEO of Found Energy and a Postdoctoral researcher. Paul is on a mission to address the climate crisis by turning waste materials into carbon-free energy while maintaining the energy density of fossil fuels.
To learn more about how aluminum can be used for generating carbon-free energy while addressing waste and recycling issues, check the key takeaways of this episode or the transcript below.
- 09:27 – 15:15 – Using aluminum to produce carbon-free energy – Despite the rapid growth of renewable energy solutions, 80% of global energy needs are still met by burning fossil fuels. The dominance of fossil fuels is down to three factors: they have a high energy density and are easy to store and use. Weight for weight, aluminum has twice the energy density of liquid fuels and is the fourth most commonly found element in the earth’s crust. When aluminum is added to water containing a corrosive additive, the aluminum starts to rust and releases hydrogen, which can be run through a fuel cell and steam that can be used to generate clean energy.
- 24:10 – 25:11 – A Sustainable and scalable business model – Peter explains that, in the short term, Found Energy will stay a technology company focused on developing the processes and building the actual reactors. Due to the high power density, the company can make pallet-sized reactors with a megawatt-scale power output that customers can use across the aluminum value chain. The dual-ended business model focuses on taking in aluminum waste in the short term and outputting energy in different forms. Hence, it makes sense to start where you either have the aluminum waste or where you need the aluminum hydroxide as an input.
- 28:29 – 29:09 – Scalability challenges of the solution – Scaling the reactors requires scaling the storage and transportation of the materials you’re using. The first challenge is moving these materials around in different phases. Ensuring consistency of the reaction is another challenge, which is achieved by ensuring that the aluminum breaks down quickly and in the most optimal way. Then, the unknowns only come to light when you scale the plant. Peter mentions that every 10X scale of the plant throws up new and unanticipated challenges.
Dylan: Hardware to Save a Planet explores the technical innovations that are giving us hope in the fight against climate change. Each episode focuses on a specific climate challenge and explores an emerging physical technology solution with the person bringing it into reality. I’m your host, Dylan Garrett. Hello and welcome to Hardware to Save a Planet. I’m very excited to be talking with Peter Godart, Co-Founder and CEO of Found Energy. We’ll be talking about how Found Energy is addressing waste and recycling challenges while also generating carbon-free energy. They do this by using aluminum as a fuel. This was a totally new and intriguing concept to me, and I’m really excited about the little I’ve learned about it so far. Just to set the stage, on the recycling side, I’ve always thought of aluminum as infinitely recyclable and much easier to identify and sort than plastic. So I was really surprised to learn that 2.7 million tons of aluminum go to US landfills every year, which is almost 2% of our total municipal solid waste. That’s at least according to the EPA in 2018. On the energy side, it turns out that aluminum has a really high volumetric energy density relative to other fuels, which gives it a lot of potential as a means for transporting energy, among other applications. I’m sure Peter will tell us about it. To introduce Peter, he holds three degrees from MIT, including his PhD in mechanical engineering. In the research I’ve done on his background, a few things stand out to me. One is his dedication to education. He has designed a high school engineering competition and has written a textbook on thermodynamics and climate change. I also think I see a theme of turning trash into treasure in various ways, which is something near and dear to my heart. And also robots. Peter has worked on robots for NASA and for carnivals and circuses, and that is just super cool. So Peter, I’m really excited to talk with you about all of this. Thanks a lot for being on the show.
Peter: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Dylan: So I think I got to start with space robots, just because that’s awesome.
Peter: You got to.
Dylan: Tell me more about that.
Peter: So I’ve actually always been interested in robotics. In high school, I even participated in space robot themed challenges. And as you mentioned in my intro, that actually got me involved in designing robotics challenges for high school students as well. And actually the first challenge that I designed was a Mars themed mission, where students would design a rover that they would have to subject to various analogues of the challenges that you would see in sending real robots to Mars. So the first thing I had people do, for example, they would have to drop their robot three feet, and it would have to survive the impact. Students really hated me for that because it made the challenge a lot more difficult. And I should mention that this particular challenge was actually run by Panasonic in New Jersey. You had to use items you found lying around the house to actually produce these robots. So actually, this was also my first exposure to turning trash into something cool. And so fast forward a few years, I was looking for a job coming out of my undergrad and decided on a whim to apply for a position at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, which had been my dream job since I had started looking at these robots back in high school. And by some miracle, I managed to land a job there. And it really was a dream job for me. I had a lot of different roles there. One of my roles was actually in doing operations for the Curiosity Mars Rover. So I got to spend every morning sitting in the Mission Control Center at JPL, basically looking out the eyes of this 2,000 pound robot on a different planet. It was amazing.
Dylan: That’s awesome. Can you tell me a little bit more about the work you did? And my understanding is that kind of led eventually to what you’re doing at Found Energy. Help us kind of tie those things together.
Peter: Yeah, exactly. So one of the projects that I got pulled in while I was working there was actually on an energy system for landers that might one day go to Europa, which is one of the moons of Jupiter. And I remember sitting in what they call these tiger team meetings because we had a real dilemma on our hands. We had to come up with a new power system that couldn’t use the typical nuclear power, the radioisotope thermoelectric generators that we use for the Mars rovers. And there were a couple of reasons for that cost and also potentially planetary health. We were potentially going to go and traverse what we think are the liquid oceans beneath the ice sheets of Europa and look for life and the typical lithium primary batteries were not quite energy dense enough. And we’re sitting there sort of debating, can we get 800 or 900 watt hours per kilogram out of these next gen primary lithium-ion batteries? And I’m sitting there realizing that aluminum in the spacecraft, the aluminum that we use to make the spacecraft has something like 8.6 kilowatt-hours per kilogram. So I asked the question, can we build robots that can consume this aluminum once this aluminum has fulfilled its primary function? So landing gears, chassis, heat shields, enclosures, all of this aluminum that’s sitting there, 8.6 kilowatt-hours per kilogram, that’s doing nothing once it’s on the surface of Europa. So I started a program there that I like to call the Self-Cannibalizing Robot Group, where we looked at technologies for enabling these robots to consume these vestigial components for energy. And what’s also cool is that I had done some research back when I was an undergrad at MIT on aluminum water chemistry, just so happens. We’re looking at making hydrogen by reacting aluminum and water. We had found a class of not, people spend a lot of time looking for corrosion inhibitors. We actually found a class of additives that were actually corrosion accelerants and would generate hydrogen really rapidly. So connected these dots and started generating hydrogen out of the ice that you can find on the surface of Europa. So the idea there is that you send a lander to Europa, it’s got these aluminum landing gears, they would screw into the ice once they landed and the aluminum would latently activate, it’d become water reactive, and you would end up generating these little caverns of hydrogen gas in the ice sheet. And then other landers or maybe that lander itself just have to bring a small tank of oxygen and a fuel cell and you get electricity.
Dylan: I just think that’s so cool. It sounds like one of those kinds of crazy ideas that gets thrown out in a brainstorm like, oh, let’s just make these robots kind of eat their spaceship for fuel.
Dylan: That then that’s the sticky note that kind of gets tossed to the side after you think of a more realistic idea. But it sounds like this one actually had enough legs to pursue it.
Peter: Yeah, and a lot of credit to my bosses at JPL for seeing that and being like, that’s just crazy enough to actually make sense. So they gave me some money to take a closer look.
Dylan: And how far did it go? Is that still a viable potential path?
Peter: So the particular project that we were working on ended up getting canned, as so happens. And that one was a product of some political issues. But it really got me thinking about this idea of energy hiding in plain sight or mining unconventional sources of materials and feedstock chemicals for energy. And this came at a point in my career where I also started thinking more about Earth issues and specifically wanted to get more involved in something to address climate change. And actually, part of that was the other work that I was doing, investigating Mars in different forms. And through my work with the Curiosity Mars Rover, I came to appreciate how good we have it on Earth. And I had some friends who were working over at SpaceX, and they were talking about colonizing Mars and terraforming Mars as a planet B. And I really got into my head that that was not a great idea and wanted to devote my career to ensuring that we would never have to go to Mars. And let’s really focus on planet A. And so these two things that were happening in parallel gave me a good excuse to actually go back to grad school and try to further this idea along to address Earth applications.
Dylan: Yeah, Mars would kind of suck compared to Earth. There’s a great… I sent you this, but just for people listening, there’s a great video that was circulating LinkedIn around Earth Day. It’s just… It’s all about how bad Mars is. So let’s make sure we fix Earth.
Peter: Yeah, it’s not fun. It’s cold. Your bones would shrink. And there’s not even anything interesting to look at. I’d rather live under the oceans.
Dylan: Okay, so you left your dream job to go back and do your PhD with the goal of addressing climate change and this notion of finding energy in these kinds of untapped resources. Could you talk a little bit, I want to talk more in a bit about kind of specifically what you’re doing with aluminum and how that works, but I’d love to hear in your words kind of what aspects of climate change you’re solving. Like what is the problem that you’re addressing with Found Energy?
Peter: Yeah, great question. So the main issue is that today we move 65 terawatt-hours of energy as oil and gas. And even if we can just flip some sort of magic switch and stop using fossil fuels, we’ll still need to contend with the fact that we’ll have to move renewable energy around as well. You can’t simply hook a power cable up to the vast solar resources of the Middle East or Africa or West Texas to sometimes the entire countries that don’t have direct access to renewables, Central Europe, parts of Asia, Japan, Korea. There will always be places where you will need to import energy and we need a viable energy carrier that’s compatible with renewable energy. And it needs to be done in a way that’s at least similar to fossil fuels. There are some interesting properties of fossil fuels that, you know, they’re relatively energy dense, they’re pretty easy to use and store and handle. And so the replacements should roughly have those properties as well. And then just practically speaking, whatever energy carriers we use should be abundant and we should be able to easily use electricity or renewables directly to produce them. And so just from a first principles perspective, aluminum makes a lot of sense. It’s actually the third most abundant element on Earth. That’s 8% of the Earth’s crust, the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust. It’s really energy dense. It’s about double the volumetric energy density of most liquid hydrocarbons, diesel, for example. It’s 40 times more energy dense than lithium-ion, five times more energy dense than methanol and ammonia and 10 times more energy dense than something like liquid hydrogen. And as I mentioned before, you can actually use aluminum to make hydrogen. You can move metallic aluminum around, you can react with water, basically corrode it, and produce hydrogen on site. So it checks a lot of the boxes that it’s abundant, it’s energy dense, and it’s easy to handle. We already move lots of aluminum around every day. It’s safe. And the production of aluminum today is actually already electrified. It’s not fully decarbonized, but it’s electrified. We’re already a good bit of the way there in terms of decarbonizing that. And once you fully decarbonize aluminum production, which is, again, it’s an electrochemical process. It’s called the Hall-Heroult Process. Once you decarbonize that, you basically turn all aluminum smelters into big primary battery chargers. They’re hooked up to a renewable grid. You’ve just stored all of that energy. It’s about a 70% efficient process. You stored all that energy and now it’s in a form factor that’s really easy to move around. The question is, how do you get that energy back out?
Dylan: Right. So I assume it’s not a new idea that aluminum is energy dense in the way you described. But what is it about what you’re doing that kind of makes this accessible?
Peter: Yeah. I mean, for over 100 years, we’ve appreciated the power of aluminum. It was actually used as an additive to rocket fuels in the early 1900s. But the problem with aluminum reactions in general. So the idea with most fuels is to get them to undergo some sort of redox reaction to release their stored energy as heat. Or in some cases, you can use a fuel cell and you’re able to go directly to electrons. But for most fuels, you’re trying to burn them. And in the case of aluminum, you can do this with a variety of oxidizers. Back in the day, they used nitric acid and all these crazy oxidizers. But the problem with aluminum redox reactions is that they either happen too fast or they happen way too slow. In order to get them to happen at some reasonable rate, they were basically turning aluminum into big metallic pieces of aluminum into powders, which is really energy intensive to make and really, really dangerous to store. They can actually just spontaneously combust and then explode, which is not a great property for a fuel to have. And actually, even with the powders, they were finding that they were getting incomplete combustion of the aluminum. And there’s some really great stories of early experiments happening at JPL, actually, where they fired these rocket engines with the aluminum additives. And it just makes everything in the plume’s path with this shiny metallic covering from all of the unreacted aluminum. It just turned everything, it just chromed everything out. And so on the other end of the spectrum, if you want a piece of aluminum that’s safe to store, you have to have a relatively low surface area to volume ratio. But then it turns out that when you expose aluminum to any sort of oxidizer, air or water, the oxide or the aluminum hydroxide layer that forms on the surface is actually really passivating. It’s really good at stopping that reaction and preventing it from going any further. And so the game there is to remove that oxide layer as quickly as possible. And what we figured out how to do is sort of the best of both worlds, where we can actually start with a big piece of aluminum, meaning low surface area to volume ratio. Big for us means pellets ranging from a centimeter in diameter all the way up to maybe 10 centimeters in diameter, or even think of just pieces of aluminum waste you find lying around bits of vertical combustion engines or wheels or roofing material, soda cans. And then we’re able to take all of that and apply this coating that causes the aluminum to disintegrate when it’s exposed to water. So as soon as this reaction starts, the aluminum will actually disintegrate. And then suddenly you have a really large surface area to volume ratio, where it actually turns itself into a powder at the point and at the time of use. So you can get this controllable reaction rate in that way. And we were able to do this at a power density of around 10 megawatts per kilogram, which is as far as we know, the highest power density of any stable controllable aluminum fuel that’s over been produced.
Dylan: Cool. Maybe there’s no chance of me fully understanding this, but you’re doing something to the aluminum that kind of prevents this oxide layer from forming that protects it, that naturally forms, and instead it causes it to disintegrate itself.
Peter: Yes. The way to think about this is with conventional aluminum metallurgy, you’re trying to find alloys that are usually resistant to corrosion. And we’ve found these, you can think of them as alloying elements that cause the aluminum to very rapidly corrode. What’s cool about the materials that we’ve discovered is that you can apply them to the surface of the aluminum after the fact. So this means that you don’t have to make these alloys at the casting house when you’re actually smelting aluminum and you have it in its molten state. You can just take any piece of aluminum that you find lying on the street and you can apply this. It’s just basically a coating. You apply this coating, causing the aluminum to become water reactive, and then we can actually recover that coating, purify it, and then run this process again. So it’s basically a catalyst you apply to the surface of the aluminum. It’s a true catalyst. It doesn’t engage in the reaction with water. You get it back and then you start this process over again.
Dylan: And are there any emissions from the process?
Peter: No emissions. So just you’re getting hydrogen gas. So the overall chemistry that we’re doing here is aluminum plus water gives you hydrogen gas, aluminum hydroxide, which is actually how aluminum is found naturally in earth. And that’s the aluminum containing mineral in oxide ore. And then this reaction is very exothermic. And because we’re doing this in an aqueous environment, you get a huge amount of heat release and that means you get a lot of steam as well. So the direct emissions for us are just hydrogen and steam. And then of course, whatever you do with hydrogen, you can either combust it or run it through a fuel cell. You’re getting water vapor on the outside at the output of that as well.
Dylan: Okay. And then all that you can use to either generate electricity or like carbon free electricity or use the heat directly in some industrial process or something.
Peter: Yep, exactly.
Dylan: Yeah, that’s cool. I’ve talked with other guests on the show about just how hard it is to distribute hydrogen, like how I guess it’s really unsafe and challenging to move around. And it is what it is density, it is gravimetrically dense, but not volumetrically dense. So there, my rough understanding of it is because it’s so hard to distribute and it kind of limits its potential applications. But what you’re doing is one way to think about it is you’re making it really easy to transport energy and then turn it into hydrogen where it’s needed.
Peter: Yeah, exactly. This gets back to just the general problem of us needing a renewable energy carrier. Hydrogen for some applications makes a lot of sense because, like you said, it’s actually sub-nuclear. It’s one of the, if not the most, gravimetrically energy dense material that we have. But volumetrically, it’s one of the worst. So these tanks are huge. So it’s really great for rockets where you need that specific impulse. And it’s really good for hybrid aircraft, in my opinion, where a lot of the fuel that’s required on an airplane is just to get the mass of that fuel off the ground during takeoff. And so that’s where having a really energy dense mass fuel like hydrogen, you get exponential savings on the total system mass. And then for crews, maybe there’s some better options there. We don’t need to get into that. But for basically every other application, the tanks required for hydrogen are just prohibitively large. For an application like maritime shipping, for example, how do we replace heavy fuel oil that’s used to propel all of the ships around the world? Doing even liquid hydrogen, you’d basically need a second boat that you’re towing behind the first boat that’s just full of the hydrogen in order to power the first boat. And so it turns out for a lot of these applications, volume is actually more of a limiting factor than mass. So having a volumetrically energy dense fuel like aluminum actually makes a lot more sense.
Dylan: And we touched just briefly on the recycling challenge or the waste management challenge with aluminum. I was shocked to hear how low a percentage of aluminum we actually recycle today. Is that part of the way to think about what you’re doing as well?
Peter: Yeah. Forget the fact that on paper, the first principal’s aluminum makes sense as a global energy carrier. And there’s still some things that need to happen before we can really tap into all of that aluminum as an energy carrier, specifically the decarbonization of the Hall-Heroult process, for example. Forget that, today, there is so much energy sitting idle in landfills and natural ecosystems as aluminum. This is actually the concept of, again, of Found Energy. This energy is already there. The energy was already put in during the smelting process. And if it’s sitting around doing nothing, that’s a lot of wasted potential. And so aluminum, people like to think, is infinitely recyclable. And that is true if it was just pure aluminum, or if you very precisely knew what else was in there. When you make an aluminum alloy, you’re adding up to 5 % or even 10 % weight percent of other elements like magnesium and copper and iron and silicon. And changing the composition of an aluminum alloy by even 0.1 weight percent will dramatically change the chemical and physical properties of those alloys. So what that means is you can’t mix together different alloys and expect to get aluminum that functions the same or even in a predictable way. So practically speaking, the only aluminum that really gets recycled is that aluminum, which is really easily identifiable in terms of alloy content. So that’s things like used beverage cans. But even a used beverage can is actually composed of two different alloys, a 3,000 series and a 5,000 series alloy. They get melted down together, and they have to get diluted with a small amount of pure aluminum. And they can only make one of those alloys, and then you have to make the other alloy from virgin aluminum. So even a soda can, which is considered to be the most recyclable aluminum feedstock, is not itself 100% recyclable.
Dylan: So a key kind of benefit of your process is that you are alloy agnostic, you can take a mix of all these different aluminum alloys and put them into your process.
Peter: Yeah, exactly. So actually going into this research now about 10 years ago, our goal was to be able to take in aluminum alloys, even aluminum that just had surface contamination, coatings, dirt, organics, and come up with a process that was not sensitive to any of those other additives. That’s exactly where we succeeded. So we can really take in all aluminum alloys. We can take in things with even paint coatings. A used beverage can, for example, has a polymer coating on both the outside and the inside. And our process basically ignores that. Our coatings just eat aluminum and leave everything that’s not aluminum hanging out for the ride.
Dylan: Okay, so we’ve talked about a number of different applications. Where do you plan on focusing your business? What do you expect your business model to be, at least initially? Who are your customers and what will you sell to them?
Peter: Yeah, so there’s a lot of work to be done within the aluminum industry itself. Obviously, increasing circularity is a big push, but also decarbonizing everything from mining bauxite to refining the aluminum hydroxide to then calcining that aluminum hydroxide to aluminum oxide, and then getting that aluminum oxide into the various input streams to aluminum smelters used in pharmaceuticals, and so on. So aluminum is used to make different glasses, and there’s a lot of carbon emissions that can be saved by actually replacing a lot of the thermal energy inputs to these different processes, which today mostly come from natural gas or actually coal in some places. And because we’re able to make hydrogen gas, it’s quite easy to just combust that and use the thermal energy directly to power the calcination process, for example. And what’s also cool is that because we’re using aluminum waste as a feedstock and producing aluminum hydroxide, we’re also reducing some of the need for mined bauxite. And so there’s some emission savings associated with that as well.
Dylan: Okay, cool. So aluminum reduction would take aluminum waste as an input to fuel some of the processes to provide the heat for some of these processes.
Peter: Yes, exactly.
Dylan: Okay. What part of all that would you do like from a business standpoint? Are you, will you be providing systems to these aluminum manufacturers that will generate energy on site. And then they manage kind of the operations of it or how does that look?
Peter: Yeah. So in the short term, we’re very much a technology company. We’re developing these processes and also building these first of our kind reactors that can use these new chemical processes, these aluminum water reactions. And so because of the high power density, we can make these compact megawatt scale power systems that we can deliver to customers across the aluminum value chain. Now, because we sort of are running a two-ended business here where we’re taking in aluminum waste in the short term and then outputting energy in different forms and aluminum hydroxide, for us, it makes the most sense to just start where you either have the aluminum waste or where you need the aluminum hydroxide as an input. And it turns out everyone across both ends of this business needs energy. And a lot of that energy is virtually all of it today is fossil based. And so just to save on logistics, we’re just focused on folks that fit into one of these two camps. There’s a lot of demand for this, we’ve learned.
Dylan: I want to talk about the reactor itself and just kind of think about it as a physical piece of hardware or hardware system. At this point, I understand it as a black box, aluminum goes in, aluminum and water, I guess, and hydrogen, heat and aluminum hydroxide come out. Can you describe physically what’s happening between those steps?
Peter: Yeah, it’s a really fun engineering challenge because we’re handling three different phases of material. We have solids going in continuously, we have aluminum hydroxide coming out, which is basically a gel, so it’s like a hydrated sludge. We have gasses coming out and we have liquid water going in as well. And so getting all of these materials to interact in the right place at the right time and do this continuously without things clogging and when we’re talking about aluminum waste, there’s all sorts of other stuff in there that we also have to filter out. And so it just becomes a really interesting materials handling problem.
Dylan: When you talk about how you’re solving some of those material handling challenges, what does that actually end up looking like from a physical standpoint?
Peter – 00:26:19: So a lot of this is proprietary, so I can’t go too deep into the details here. But I can talk a little bit about one of the challenges, which is super interesting, is just the way that this reaction proceeds. We’re starting with large pieces of aluminum. That aluminum has to disintegrate. You then get a lot of surface area where the reaction happens really fast. And then as you deplete your aluminum reactant, those reaction rates tailor off. And so you have this typical reaction rate S-curve, but with very pronounced features. So the reaction takes a little bit of time to start up, then is super fast and really consistent, and then slows down pretty quickly. And so we have some clever ways of staging this reaction so that you’re always getting stable power output, even though you’re operating across different parts of this reaction regime for fuel in sort of different places in the reactor.
Dylan: Will it be kind of a continuous process? You’re sort of, you have this continuous stream of the solid and the water coming in and you’re able to continuously generate power.
Peter: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, the dream is to, you know, at a recycling facility, you back up a dump truck, you dump your aluminum waste mixed with all sorts of other junk in there, and you’re just getting hydrogen continuously. And then another truck comes and picks up your aluminum hydroxide and ships it out to an aluminum oxide producer.
Dylan: Oh, interesting. Are you saying it could be, I mean, I think I read like aluminum is 2% of municipal solid waste or something today. You’re not saying just any old kind of landfill truck could dump stuff into your system and you’re just going to process the aluminum out of it.
Peter: So the nice thing is that a lot of waste facility, waste management facilities already have the technology for separating aluminum from other materials. You can use eddy current sorting, for example. It’s very difficult to tell two different aluminum alloys apart, but it’s very easy to tell, this is aluminum and not a piece of iron or a piece of plastic. So we’re actually working right now with some waste processing facilities to see exactly how we fit into their process, you know, downstream of the sorting that they’re already doing.
Dylan: From a technology standpoint, what do you think are going to be the biggest challenges to kind of further scale and deploy what you’re doing?
Peter: Yeah, great question. So just as you scale up these types of reactors and you’re handling more material per hour, it’s all of the challenges of moving these materials around in these different phases just exacerbated. So you have to be even more clever about how you stage this reactor to prevent things from getting stuck and making sure that the aluminum breaks down quickly in the most optimal way. Yeah, I mean, then of course there’s the unknown, no one’s built reactors at this scale before and every time we go 10X and scale, we learn that some of the challenges of the smaller scales actually go away and then you have new challenges to worry about. So, this is actually the most fun part of doing this work.
Dylan: Thinking a little bit about the future of Found Energy, what kind of impact do you hope the company has on the world in the long run? What time frame are you thinking about with that?
Peter: Yeah, I mean, so we’re focused now on all of the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, all of that aluminum, where you’ve already invested the energy in producing this aluminum, and now it’s underutilized and landfills are being exported. And so we want to be able to process millions of tons a year of this inefficiently discarded aluminum. But at the same time, we also want to be starting to work with aluminum smelters and say, “hey, if you start producing more low-carbon aluminum, we’ll actually be a massive customer of yours.” We want to massively increase the demand for green aluminum, particularly as an energy carrier. And this will allow us to go after these other really cool applications and high-impact applications like maritime shipping, like just general energy transportation to Japan and Korea, which even if, again, we can just magically switch to renewables today, they would still need to import energy in one form or another.
Dylan: Okay, so actually producing virgin aluminum as an energy storage mechanism. So rather than, I mean, today we’re shipping, I guess, oil and gas or coal or something across the ocean to places that don’t have enough renewable energy potential.
Dylan: As opposed to that, produce a bunch of aluminum, put it on a ship and send it over.
Peter: Yep, exactly.
Dylan: Wow. Okay.
Peter: One day we may even run around aluminum smelters.
Dylan: That would be cool. So, yeah, that’s interesting. So it actually makes sense to produce, as long as it’s green aluminum, as you call it, it makes a lot of sense to do it that way. Like the energy balance works out and financials, it doesn’t have to be a waste product to work out.
Peter: Exactly. And if you look at the aluminum industry today, it’s basically energy arbitrage. Because it’s so energy intensive to make, gravitating to a bear of energy is the cheapest, of course. And what’s awesome is that this is increasingly becoming renewable. So hydropower is some of the cheapest energy we have available. So you see a lot of aluminum smelters in Iceland and Brazil and Canada and the Pacific Northwest, where you have all of that hydropower. And it makes financial sense to actually import aluminum oxide from South America, for example, produce aluminum using all of this cheap electricity. And then because of the energy density and the price point, you’re then actually exporting that energy just as this material. And if you look at the global aluminum supply chain, you’re actually moving like half a petawatt hour of energy around every year. And because aluminum is, again, the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, there’s effectively no limit to how much you can do this. And if you’re running your own smelters, you’re sort of insulated from the market dynamics of supply and demand. You’re just running a smelter as a battery charger. The economics work out to produce some of the cheapest hydrogen when you take into account the storage costs and the transportation costs. And our dream is to really just reframe that aluminum supply chain as an energy supply chain. And it’s one of the few supply chains today that could actually be expanded to the scale of fossil fuels. That 65 terawatt-hours of energy that we move around every single day as oil and gas. We could actually replace that with aluminum.
Dylan: 65 terawatt-hours per day we move around.
Peter: As oil and gas. Actually, that’s just by boat too. And that’s just oil and gas by boat.
Dylan: Yeah, that’s insane. I should have looked this up before. But our total global renewable energy production is on the order of tens of terawatt-hours, isn’t it?
Peter: Exactly. Yeah, it’s a difficult problem. Yeah, it’s a very difficult problem.
Dylan: So instead of shipping, I mean, we have to find something that can be shipped around as cheaply and efficiently as oil and gas just to meet all of those market needs. Well, yeah, that’s crazy.
Peter: I mean, what puts things into perspective is that there’s enough solar resources, like in just West Texas, to power most of the world. But if you wanted to do that, the question is, how do you get that power? How do you get that energy to the other parts of the world?
Dylan:And you don’t foresee these markets like Japan finding a way to produce enough renewable energy locally?
Peter: So, I mean, they don’t seem to think so. I mean, their strategic vision is to produce hydrogen in Australia or the Middle East. Turn it into maybe ammonia or methanol or some other energy carrier, and then import that. But they’re having a lot of problems with the energy density, the safety, the cost of a lot of these alternatives. Ammonia, for example, we move a lot of ammonia around today because it’s a feedstock chemical for fertilizers, for example, but it’s incredibly toxic. And you’re restricted in how you can move that around inland and at what scales. And so having something else can just enhance flexibility of moving this energy around. And our whole thing from the beginning has been, well, if it’s so difficult to move and store hydrogen, maybe don’t do that and transport something else, store something else that allows you to make hydrogen on site.
Dylan: Well, it makes a ton of sense. I love it. Okay, I’ve used up all of our time. Was there anything else you wanted to hit that we didn’t cover about the technology or the business model or anything like that?
Peter: Yeah, one other thing, it’s something I’m really excited about and that sound is really excited about, is not just dealing with sort of the, how do we mitigate carbon emissions going forward, but also how do we adapt to a climate that is warming as a result of the emissions of the past? This adaptation piece requires philanthropic work where you’re not necessarily making money. But what’s cool about our business is that you can use the same technology to turn debris from a natural disaster, aluminum debris from a natural disaster, into fuel to provide emergency power and things like potable water in the aftermath of that natural disaster. A lot of this work that I was doing actually was inspired by a trip I took to Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Maria, where I’m driving around and people are without water, everyone’s running a diesel generator to run RO desalinators or generate electricity. And meanwhile, there’s all this aluminum debris from damaged homes, damaged cars, just littering the landscape. And something clicked for me when I saw all of that, that, hey, we can really do something here. Even if there’s not enough aluminum on site to provide all of the energy needed for that water and for that electricity, because of the properties of aluminum that being volumetrically energy dense, easy to store, it makes sense just as a fuel to import in the aftermath of a natural disaster. You could even stockpile aluminum for decades in places where you might expect there to be an energy deficit, because it basically doesn’t corrode until we get our hands on it.
Dylan: Oh, wow. Right, rather than storing energy in some other form. I mean, it’s also very safe to store, it sounds like. And yeah, you don’t have the kind of degradation over time that batteries do and that kind of thing. Yeah.
Peter: Yeah. A canister of diesel can actually go bad in a few months if it’s not stored correctly.
Dylan: That’s very cool. So you would deploy one of your reactors or some of your reactors to natural disaster zones after the fact to provide energy on site.
Dylan: Yeah. Is the kind of collection and processing of the aluminum debris a big challenge though? Like, do you have to, how do you get it out of cars and roofing material and all this stuff and then like chip it down? You know what I’m talking about? Is that a big challenge?
Peter: I mean, fortunately, just from an energy perspective and a practical perspective, it’s quite easy to shred and compress aluminum. It’s what we already do in aluminum waste processing. So you have to invest in some amount of infrastructure to be able to process the debris. But what’s always the hardest is just where does that energy come from? So fortunately, that energy is already there and you’re using a small amount of energy to just prepare the fuel to undergo these reactions.
Dylan: Yeah, no, it’s a beautiful idea. And I love them. We have to find ways to adapt. As well as just kind of thinking about the future. Like we’ve already done some damage, there’s already global warming and more natural disasters and everything to contend with and that’ll keep getting worse probably.
Peter: Yeah, the climate has changed.
Dylan: Yeah, I love that. Well, I have a few last closing questions for you. How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of the planet and why?
Peter: So I am 100% optimistic because we have to be. I’ve seen the alternative. I’ve seen planet B, not as close as anyone on this planet. And I can promise you that what we have on planet A is much better and we should do everything in our power to stay here.
Dylan: Yeah, you’re here. Who is one other person or company doing something to address climate change right now that’s inspiring you?
Peter: So I’m just going to give a shout out generally to the US Department of Energy. What they’re doing right now is super inspiring. Secretary Granholm, Evelyn Lang, who was the former department head of MechE at MIT back when I was there, they’re doing really amazing things and they’re doing it in a way that’s really inspiring and the pace that they’re moving finally feels right for the scale of the challenge at.
Dylan: Yeah, that’s a good one. What advice do you have for someone not working in the climate today who wants to do something to help?
Peter: In one way or another, everyone is working in the climate. You’re either working directly to slow or reverse climate change, or it’s very possible that the downstream impacts of your work are contributing to climate change. And so I just always encourage my students and people I talk to think about the downstream impacts of the work they’re doing either way. I mean, there’s a lot of folks that think they’re helping the climate. And actually when you zoom out further, you might actually be having a detrimental impact or maybe other people are using your work as greenwashing and that’s maybe not as impactful as you think it is. So I just generally encourage people to take an audit of their own climate impact in their careers, in their lives, and really engage with them and see if you can make some even incremental positive impact there.
Dylan: I love that. That’s a new way of thinking about it for me. And yeah, we’re all working in climate one way or another. Peter, thank you very much. That was really fun. I’m glad that you’ve decided to focus on Planet A.
Peter: Me too.
Dylan: Appreciate everything you’re doing and all your time today.
Peter: Thank you so much for having me. This was awesome.
Dylan: Hardware to Save a Planet is brought to you by Synapse. To find out more about us and how we develop hardware solutions for the world’s most ambitious companies, head to synapse.com. And then make sure to search for Hardware to Save a Planet in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts, or anywhere you like to listen. Make sure to click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at Synapse, thanks for listening.