For most people, the word sustainability brings to mind images of tree planting and reusable water bottles. Occasionally the concerned homeowner will read articles about conserving energy at home, but they may not realize just how large an impact one common suggestion can have on the environment—how one adjusts their thermostat. But even that can only take us so far in the quest for sustainable home heating options.
Modern Electron is one company that understands exactly how big of an impact home heating can have on the environment. Today, natural gas is the most common way buildings are heated. While it might be a convenient fuel, natural gas is not the most long-term ideal from a sustainability standpoint. Modern Electron co-founder and CEO Tony Pan explained:
“If you’re burning fuel just for heat, from a physics standpoint it’s very wasteful. If you were burning natural gas or coal or biofuels in a power plant, you’d be generating electricity first, because electricity has about four times the value of heat. The reason we don’t do that is you can’t scale down power plant tech to the level of a commercial or residential building. This loss has been known about for a century — if you can generate heat and electricity, it’s like a holy grail.”
A holy grail is indeed what Modern Electron has been chasing, and not only for sustainability reasons. Roughly 9 million American homes lose power for more than 24 hours in the winter, leading not only to property damage but also to fatalities. The company highlights that 50 percent of American home energy demand comes from heating space and water. Making this process more efficient is critical during an age where blackouts are becoming more common and data from the USA Energy Information Administration reveals that one-third of American families struggle to pay their energy bills.
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Setting out to solve this home heating dilemma, Modern Electron rolled out an initial solution called a thermionic converter. While this soda-can-sized converter was efficient, simply taking heat produced by a furnace and converting it into energy was not the breakthrough the company desired. This first small attempt led to the invention of the Modern Electron Reserve, currently still in development but set to make its debut soon.
The Modern Electron Reserve functions as a converter of sorts. Intercepting the natural gas that is commonly burned to heat homes, the converter splits the gas into parts. All methane is stripped and converted into a form of graphite carbon that can be emptied into the trash rather than entering the atmosphere. What is left after this process is hydrogen gas, which continues on to the furnace to be burned as a cleaner fuel.
“Hydrogen (H2) is a clean fuel that produces energy and water as its only waste product. It is a carbon-free substitute for fossil fuels. As a fuel, hydrogen can decarbonize many parts of our economy that renewable electrification cannot reach. Using hydrogen in your building enables reliable and sustainable decarbonization. The fastest & cheapest way is to re-use existing gas infrastructure. Modern Electron is developing a scalable gas-to-hydrogen converter to produce clean hydrogen fuel with net-zero emissions. We’ll do so where you’re already located, thus avoiding the need for hydrogen transportation and storage infrastructure, which does not yet exist at scale.”
While this technology has yet to fully debut, it is promising. Data suggests that roughly 20 percent of all American carbon emissions come from residential energy use. Considering that home heating makes up a large portion of that use, it is an obvious starting point for new decarbonization technology. Modern Electron’s plan to deploy this technology is still in its infancy, but they are definitely worth watching as they reveal this significant step in reducing carbon and making home energy use more sustainable.
Kelvey Vander Hart is a native Iowan, a member of the American Conservation Coalition, and a communications specialist at Reason Foundation.