From Robotics Consuming Themselves to Revamping Heavy Industry: The Transformation of Found Energy

The aluminum used to make the spacecraft held more than 10 times the energy of any cutting-edge battery. To release the energy embodied in refined aluminum, Godart had to figure out how to get past the metal’s defenses, so to speak. “One of the hardest elements of heavy industry to decarbonize is the heat,” Godart said. Aluminum is slightly heavier than diesel or bunker fuel, but its energy density could be game changing for those industries. One could imagine future ships powered by aluminum dropping their waste powder off at a smelter to be refueled for a return voyage.

Found Energy doesn’t have the typical startup origin story: It began with a space robot that was supposed to eat itself. Now, the company is developing that same technology with an eye toward powering aluminum smelters and long-haul shipping.

Nearly a decade ago, Peter Godart, Found Energy’s co-founder and CEO, was a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He and some colleagues were brainstorming how to power a probe that might visit Jupiter’s moon, Europa. The team was debating the energy density of batteries that might be suitable when a stray thought landed in Godart’s head.

“The aluminum used to make the spacecraft held more than 10 times the energy of any cutting-edge battery. Why not use the spacecraft’s parts to power itself?”

“They gave me a bunch of money to start a program that I lovingly called the ‘self-cannibalizing robot lab,’” Godart told TechCrunch. “We looked at giving robots the ability to consume their vestigial aluminum components for fuel.”

But as he continued his research, Godart had another thought.

“I had a moment where I realized my time would be better spent solving Earth problems,” he said. His timing couldn’t have been better. Congress cut some of the funding for the Europa missions, and JPL let Godart take the intellectual property to MIT where he continued to work on the problem during his doctorate.”

To Godart, aluminum had several obvious upsides: It’s the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, it can store twice as much energy per unit volume as diesel without being volatile, and it’s possible to recover as heat 70% of the original electrical energy used to smelt it.

“I was like, oh my god, we got to do something with this,” he said.

To release the energy embodied in refined aluminum, Godart had to figure out how to get past the metal’s defenses, so to speak.

“If you throw a chunk of aluminum in water and try to oxidize it using water, it would take thousands of years,” he said.

Godart’s process is much, much faster. Once water is dropped on aluminum coated in Found Energy’s catalyst, the metal’s surface quickly starts bubbling as the reaction releases heat and hydrogen gas. Within seconds, the aluminum starts expanding as the hydrogen bubbles force it to exfoliate. That allows water to penetrate further into the metal, repeating the process over and over again until all that’s left is a gray powder.

“We actually call it fractal exfoliation,” Godart said.

Found Energy harvests the resulting stream and hydrogen, each of which can be used for a range of industrial processes.

“One of the hardest elements of heavy industry to decarbonize is the heat,” Godart said. “And now here we have this really flexible way of providing heat across a very wide range of temperatures, all the way down from 80 to 100 degrees Celsius all the way up to 1,000 degrees Celsius.”

In total, about 8.6 kilowatt-hours of energy can be recovered per metric ton of aluminum.

What’s left isn’t waste, either. The catalyst can be recovered, and the powder is aluminum trihydrate, which can be smelted once more to create metallic aluminum. Any contaminants, including food waste, plastic soda can liners and mixed alloys, remain larger than the aluminum trihydrate powder and can be easily filtered out.

“All of that stuff works in our process, because our catalyst just eats aluminum and basically leaves everything else untouched,” Godart said.

Found Energy recently raised an oversubscribed $12 million seed round, TechCrunch has exclusively learned. Investors in the round include the Autodesk Foundation, GiTV, Glenfield Partners, Good Growth Capital, J-Impact, Kompas VC, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and Munich Re Ventures.

When using scrap aluminum, which is Found Energy’s initial plan, the process is carbon negative. The startup is targeting industrial heat in its go-to-market strategy, but Godart also sees applications in marine shipping and long-haul trucking. Aluminum is slightly heavier than diesel or bunker fuel, but its energy density could be game changing for those industries.

One could imagine future ships powered by aluminum dropping their waste powder off at a smelter to be refueled for a return voyage.

“Just sip a little bit of that energy as you go, and then you’ve essentially come up with a new maritime shipping fuel as well,” he said. “In a weird way, we’re sort of revamping the concept of a solid fuel.”

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Ava Patel

Ava Patel is a cultural critic and commentator with a focus on literature and the arts. She is known for her thought-provoking essays and reviews, and has a talent for bringing new and diverse voices to the forefront of the cultural conversation.

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