In the coming year, New Belgium Brewing will replace one of its four natural gas-powered brew kettles at its main brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, with an electrified version to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The modular 650-kilowatt pilot system was developed by the start-up AtmosZero, which is also based in Fort Collins and is thus making its public debut.
“To decarbonize industry, we must decarbonize heat,” says Addison Stark, CEO and co-founder of AtmosZero. In fact, industrial heat generation is responsible for about ten percent of global carbon dioxide pollution. The sector relies heavily on steam to transfer heat, sterilize equipment and goods, and separate chemicals. According to an earlier analysis by Stark and a colleague, this practice could cause more than two billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution a year worldwide.
Renewable energy for brew kettles
New Belgium Brewing, best known for producing Fat Tire Ale, uses heavy steam to fine-tune the temperatures in the brew kettles to extract the flavors from the hops and grain at key points in the beer-making process.
Electric brew kettles, mostly powered by renewable energies such as solar and wind power, are already in production. However, they typically run using resistance heating. This generates heat by passing electricity through a conductive material or the water in the kettle. Because that consumes a lot of electricity and is expensive, according to Stark, such devices have not yet established themselves on the market. He was a former fellow and acting director at ARPA-E, the research arm of the US Department of Energy.
Instead, AtmosZero relies on heat pump technology, which electrically circulates a refrigerant with a low boiling point in a closed circuit. The unit extracts heat from the surrounding air, uses a compressor to raise the temperature of the refrigerant to the point where it boils water, and then transfers this thermal energy via a heat exchanger to a vessel that produces steam.
Heat pumps can be far more efficient than products that rely on resistance heating, as most of the electricity is used to collect and transport heat rather than generating it directly. According to Stark, a commercial version of the AtmosZero device could be up to twice as efficient as resistance boilers.
First steps to decarbonize industry
The company is currently in the final stages of development and is evaluating its first prototype at Colorado State University. Stark co-founded AtmosZero with Todd Bandhauer, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the university, and Ashwin Salvi, who was previously at Achates Power. The idea for the company stems from a publication Stark co-authored in early 2021 in which he highlighted the importance of accelerating research and development of various means of cleaning industrial heat.
“My pandemic project was to challenge the notion that the industry is difficult to decarbonize,” Stark says, adding that steam boilers “present the perfect opportunity to address the issues.” AtmosZero was founded in December of the same year. Today, the company employs 13 people and has raised $7.5 million in venture capital from Energy Impact Partners, Starlight Ventures and AENU. It also received a $500,000 grant from ARPA-E.
The start-up still faces a number of challenges. While promising to be less expensive than electric-fired resistance boilers, the company’s products still cannot compete with the very low cost of natural gas-fired boilers in some markets. Climate policies that provide incentives to reduce industrial emissions, like the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, could help make technologies like AtmosZero more attractive.
The technology has not yet been used or tested in a commercial environment. This is where the partnership with New Belgium comes into play. The pilot project is scheduled to run for six months and may or may not result in a commercial deal depending on how well it goes. However, New Belgium is confident the technology will help the company meet its climate targets – which include becoming carbon neutral by 2030.
To home page