I’m excited to share this article about industrial heat and how to decarbonize it!
In this deep dive, I explore how and what kind of process heat various industrial sectors use, the climate impact of industrial heat, and decarbonizing pathways for it. Of course, I will also share exciting startups at the forefront of decarbonizing industrial heat.
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🏭I’m doing problem and customer discovery in industrial heat. I’m looking for connections in the industry (steel, chemicals, cement, metals, pulp & paper, food & beverage) and utilities. Message me if you would like to chat or have contacts in the industry!
🔥The industry loves heat
Steel, cement, fertilizers, chemicals, glass, paper, metals, wine, you name it. Making most of our beloved goods and materials requires heat.
The industry uses 85 exajoules (EJ) of energy for process heating. That’s one fifth of all global energy consumption!
Heat is used in manufacturing processes for a variety of purposes. Industrial process heat is required, for example, to:
to keep the microbes happy in fermentation tanks and brew beer for the thirsty ones
dry sheets of the paper web to make various paper products
While we should be thankful for all the wonderful goods and materials the industry provides us, this material luxury comes with a cost.
Fossil fuels, namely coal, natural gas, and oil, produce the lion’s share of industrial process heat. Electricity provides only around 10% of process heat. This lopsided energy mix is evident in the emissions.
Industrial sectors need heat. However, the heat requirements differ from one industrial process to another.
Industrial process heat can be categorized according to two main aspects:
Different industrial processes require varying temperature levels to achieve the desired reactions and/or material transformations.
Some processes like steel, cement, and glass manufacturing require very high temperatures (above 1200°C). On the other hand, most processes in pulp & paper and food & beverage industries take place at lower temperatures.
Industrial processes also have different requirements for thermal loads. The load means how much heat energy is transferred to the process at a given time (the rate of heat transfer).
The below graph shows the annual average load and maximum temperature demand of US facilities and their industrial processes. The dots in the graph represent 993 US facilities from the 14 most emissions-heavy industries in 2015.
Other characteristics of process heat
In addition to temperature and load, the delivered heat has different pressures and time-temperature profiles (how the process heat temperature is changed with respect to time).
Lastly, heat is transferred to an industrial process directly or indirectly. When fuel is burned, the resulting heat can be directly used in furnaces, kilns, or ovens. Alternatively, the resulting heat be used to, most commonly, generate steam, which then delivers the process heat.
Steam provides roughly 30% of process heating in the US (see the chart below).
Instead of fossil fuels, zero-carbon fuels, such as hydrogen, ammonia, biofuels, and synthetic fuels, can be burned to produce the process heat.
Hydrogen: Electric Hydrogen, Enapter, Modern Hydrogen, Molten Industries
Ammonia: Amogy, Jupiter Ionics, Syzygy Plasmonics
⚡2. Electrification of heat
Heat pumps, electric furnaces, and electric boilers can directly electrify industrial process heat. Thermal storage also poses an attractive option for storing cheap and renewable electricity as heat and then discharging it on demand as process heat.
Direct electrification: Coolbrook, Airthium, AtmosZero, Skyven Technologies
Geothermal, solar thermal, and small nuclear reactors can all supply zero-carbon heat to industrial processes.
Geothermal: Quaise Energy, Fervo Energy, AltaRock
Solar thermal: Heliogen, Naked Energy, Solatom
Small modular reactors (nuclear): NuScale, TerraPower
💯4. Improved heat management
Lastly, we should use the generated heat better through improved insulation, increased process heat integration, and upcycling waste heat. While heat management cannot fully decarbonize industrial process heat, it is an essential strategy in parallel to low-carbon fuel, electrification, and low-carbon heat.
Waste heat recovery: Kanin Energy, Luminescent
All four industrial heat decarbonization pathways have pros and cons regarding technology readiness, intermittency, geographical availability, public perception, efficiency, ease of integration into existing processes, etc.
In the end, money talks. Industrial sectors are highly competitive, and companies often compete in international commodity markets with low margins. The below graph by Jake Tauscher from G2 Venture Partners gives a great overview of the heat cost and the provided temperature of heat-generating technologies. Note that no incentives like IRA have been taken into account here.
Read more about the advantages and disadvantages of different pathways for decarbonizing industrial heat here.
I am doing problem and customer discovery in industrial heat! Let me know if you work at or know people in the industry (steel, chemicals, cement, metals, pulp & paper, food & beverage) or utilities💚
IEA (2018). Clean and efficient heat for industry. Link.
McKinsey (2022). Net-zero heat: Long-duration energy storage to accelerate energy system decarbonization. Link.
McMillan, C. A. & Ruth, M. (2019). Using facility-level emissions data to estimate the technical potential of alternative thermal sources to meet industrial heat demand, Applied Energy, 239, 1077-1090. Link.
Thiel, G. P. & Stark, A. K. (2021). To decarbonize industry, we must decarbonize heat. Joule, 5, 531-550. Link.
US Department of Energy (2019). Static Sankey Diagram of Process Energy in U.S. Manufacturing Sector (2014 MECS). Link.