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  • Sonja Colford

Antora: Thinking Inside the Box for the Future of Energy Storage


Written by: Sonja Colford

Edited by: Shelby Deegan


The paradigm shift required in the energy sector to achieve sufficient carbon-emission reduction levels is not only extremely difficult, but critically time-sensitive. As companies scramble to keep up with both growing power demands and rising global temperatures, they seek solutions that are, above all, cost-effective. Particularly in cases of large-scale energy needs, financial feasibility trumps all.


In the energy industry, lithium-ion battery storage is the dominant means of energy storage, powering everything from smartphones to EVs to short-duration grid storage. However, lithium is expensive, as are other components of the battery, such as cathodes, particularly the Nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) cathodes prevalent in the market today (Crownhart, 2023). On top of cost, lithium-ion technology has issues with safety, sustainability, and longevity. Seeking long-term, scalable alternatives has long been at the forefront for firms, including Antora Energy.


The California-based startup aims to solve this problem by employing thermal battery techniques to harness and store energy for on-demand distribution to power suppliers. Their battery, a large box about the size of a shipping container, contains glowing hot blocks of carbon, whose heat can then be harvested in the form of electricity or process heat at a later date and sold. This idea, coined “hot rocks in a box”, or “sun-in-a-box”, has proven revolutionary, despite its relatively basic structure. Not only are the materials cheap and abundant, the process, which heats the blocks using energy from arrays of solar panels or wind turbines, is almost completely environmentally clean.


The cost-effectiveness of Antora’s technology, as well as that of companies around the globe with similar technologies – from Israel’s Brenmiller Energy to rival California startup Rondo – cannot be overstated. According to an estimate by Asegun Henry, MIT professor and scholar, in order to achieve a fully renewable grid, storage costs must fall below US$10/kW hr. Currently, lithium-ion battery storage costs approximately $100/kW hr, with the lowest foreseeable price hitting $50, nowhere near the $10 mark. Graphite, on the other hand, a naturally-occurring variety of carbon, amounts to $3.6/kW hr. With construction costs and other fees added, it still comes out to significantly less than $10/kW hr (Henry et al., 2020).


An important concern with regard to such a system, however, is safety. “Certainly when storing this much energy in such a small space (our energy density is significantly higher than lithium-ion batteries), there are always inherent risks and testing those is a major focus for us” Dustin Nizamian, lead R&D infrastructure engineer at Antora, wrote me in an email (Jan 17, 2024). “Nonetheless, all of our safety testing to date, from trying to set our carbon materials on fire, to flashing large amounts of water and oil inside of our chamber, indicates that we’ve designed a phenomenally safe system” he continues, comparing the safety record to those of “commercial battery and legacy combustion technologies”.


Given the technology’s economic efficiency and high safety standards, the next question that arises is marketability. Widespread commercialization, too often the downfall of many an adventurous startup, is a challenge Antora is embracing strategically. When I asked Dustin about Antora’s commercial viability, he explained, “Our current approach is to go ‘behind the meter’, that is, installing our products directly at the site of a power offtaker, to directly displace their existing natural gas loads”. Citing as an example the wealth of wind power at the fingertips of the American midwest, he described how on-site installation of Antora’s technology allows industrial plants to leverage this free – sometimes profitable – energy to cut costs significantly.


Extending this to other applications, it is clear to see that Antora’s technology stands a chance against the ever-evolving energy market by overcoming the price barrier. Looking to the future, Antora is seeking to increase the temperature of its deliverable heat from 1,500℃,  allowing it to span the entirety of industrial heat demands, an ambitious goal that its competitors have not yet achieved. Currently in the prototypical stages of production, by the first quarter of 2025, Antora expects to begin shipping units to customers.


Cracking the code of sustainable energy solutions is no easy feat. Countless companies have tried and failed, or produced interim solutions that solve certain problems but neglect others. Ultimately, and somewhat unsurprisingly, cost proves to be the most important factor in stimulating mass adoption of novel technology, and the “sun-in-a-box” seems to have cracked at least this code. If successful, Antora’s technology may mean the end of fossil-fueled industry. Clean, on-tap energy, may become the norm, in turn signaling the beginning of the world’s move away from unsustainably-sourced energy and towards an environmentally – and economically – sustainable future.


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References:


Ritchie, Hannah, et al. (2020). Emissions by sector: where do greenhouse gases come from? OurWorldInData.org, https://ourworldindata.org/emissions-by-sector.


Hahn, Robert W., Stavins, Robert S. (1991). Incentive-Based Environmental Regulation: A New Era from an Old Idea? Ecology Law Quarterly, Vol. 18:1.


Ge, Mengpin, et al. (2020). 4 Charts Explain Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Countries and Sectors. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/insights/4-charts-explain-greenhouse-gas-emissions-countries-and-sectors#:~:text=The%20Energy%20Sector%20Produces%20the%20Most%20Greenhouse%20Gas%20Emissions&text=The%20energy%20sector%20includes%20transportation,emissions%20and%20other%20fuel%20combustion. Updated June 2022.


Crownhart, Casey (2023). What’s next for batteries. MIT Technology Review. https://www.technologyreview.com/2023/01/04/1066141/whats-next-for-batteries/.


Henry, Asegun (2020). Five thermal energy grand challenges for decarbonization. Nature Energy 5, 635-637. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-020-0675-9.


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Appendix:

Interview conducted over email with Dustin Nizamian of Antora Energy 17/01/24

Interview Questions:

  • Why Antora’s technology as opposed to other thermal energy storage solutions like lithium-ion batteries? 

  • What is the return on investment for a power supplier? What makes this technology marketable?

  • What's the timeline for the development of the next iteration of the design? What do the next five, ten years look like in terms of design, testing, and construction?

  • When/where is the next prototype being deployed?

  • What are the greatest challenges your firm is facing for commercializing your product for mass adoption?

  • If it is scalable long-term, what is the expected timeline for release?

  • What are some of the key safety concerns related to a system like this, if any?



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