On Friday 20th November 2020, the 6th edition of the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit drew to a close with the announcement of our Global Challenge Grand Winner: Agora Energy Technologies, awarded €100,000 by our Worldwide Partner BNP Paribas. Selected from over 5000 applications worldwide, their technology and its potential to combat the global carbon crisis at a large scale and on multiple fronts inspired our entire community.
We sat down (virtually) with their CEO and co-founder, Christina Gyenge, to dive deeper into their story as a company, the impact of their solution, and their vision for the future. You can watch the video here!
Can you tell us a little bit more about Agora Energy Technologies, and what it stands for?
Agora is an electrochemical energy company looking for long term solutions for the energy space. In Portuguese, Agora means ‘now’, and our tagline is ‘Inventing the Next.’ So, now is the time to invent the next. This is the message we tell ourselves as a startup. We were founded around scientific discoveries. Rather than replicating existing systems, we pushed a boundary with a new technology to address certain needs and problems, and surround ourselves with scientific minds and thinkers that reimagine the world.
What societal or world problem are you addressing?
We address decarbonisation and energy storage for the energy transition with one single technology. The product that we are working on at the moment is a CO2 redox flow battery. So, to deconstruct the name: first and foremost it’s a battery. A large, industrial-scale battery for whole communities, grids and microgrids. This battery will help in the energy transition because transitioning to a new type of renewable system will require terawatt-hours upon terawatt-hours of energy. And the intermittency of all renewables that are widely deployed at present will have to be mitigated by a tremendous amount of storage. So, this gap in energy storage is one problem it addresses. The second one, as the name says, is that we tap into CO2 waste to actually put it to work in a battery and produce electricity. And because it is a very large battery, this is done at a very large scale.
What impact do you hope to have with your technology?
It has an impact at many different levels. Firstly, to enable clean electricity, on demand, in many areas. Of particular interest will be areas that are currently impacted by energy poverty. A lot of these areas can tap into a lot of renewables like solar, for example the sub-Saharan region, and because our technology is CO2 based, the whole system becomes very cheap. If we look at lithium for instance, it costs about $13,000 per tonne, whereas CO2, even after capture and purification, only costs $100 per tonne. So, we are talking about 130 orders of magnitude cheaper. So: making it cheaper, making it available, and deploying it at large scale, all combined with the environmental factor.
No other technology offers the dual function of energy storage and CO2 utilisation. How did you come up with this idea?
It started on Mars. I am passionate about Mars, and at some point, it was a hobby. What would you do with so much CO2 on Mars? It has 98% CO2 in the atmosphere. Can you actually convert CO2 to electricity? Well, the short answer is no, you can’t! From a chemical point of view, CO2 is a stubborn molecule and requires a lot of energy to become worth it. But, can you have a system that exploits what CO2 can do, such that the input would be CO2, and the output could be electricity? This idea started about 10 years ago, so it was a long iteration process, and working through it we discovered that rather than a cycle of CO2 movement in the battery, you can have a sink of CO2. So, it’s a continuous CO2 input, and a continuous output of other materials: carbonates. By the time this entire process was designed, we had 2 crises on our hands here on earth. Suddenly it became this viable, profitable technology that can be used to solve our problems here.
Can you give us some examples of some of the pushback or challenges that you’ve faced?
This is how Hello Tomorrow was very different compared to others. Because, while everybody is claiming that they want disruption, in reality they feel comfortable with familiarity. So when you present them something totally new, the acceptance is not immediate. There are not that many solutions to utilise CO2. There are many for capturing it, but in terms of what you do with so much CO2 other than immediate storage which costs a lot of money, there are very few solutions that can be deployed at large scale. It’s only recently that there is a trend to pinpoint companies that are creating a different type of future with a different type of goal. And when you move away from a status quo, you have to acknowledge that the solution will look different. They will be more risky, and they will involve more time and effort.
In 10 years, where do you see your technology being applied?
Everywhere! It has no limits to where it can be applied. Are you a big emitter of CO2? You probably would need something like this. A data centre? You would need something like this. A remote island? You need something like this. We believe that it has a role now for the energy transition, but also as we move along and become more concerned with building things sustainably, this type of technology will be implemented more and more, or so we hope.
Where would you like to take your technology in the long-term, how do you envision the future?
Maybe I can bring it back to Mars? Once we have finished deploying it here on Earth maybe we can finally deploy it to mars where it all started!
What has changed for you since winning the Hello Tomorrow Global Challenge?
Hello Tomorrow, by virtue of the judges we had in the panels that understood our solution and its implications very quickly, suddenly moved us from doing our work tediously in the background to having the reflector on us. It motivated us to do it faster and better, and bring it to a commercial outcome as soon as possible (in addition to me publicly announcing that we will power Hello Tomorrow with it, which I guess we will be held accountable!) It also opened up an opportunity for us to meet different corporations and investors. We get emails pretty much every week now, and there are live discussions with corporations that we have not dealt with before. So, the next step is to continue these discussions, and to try to bring more and more dreamers into the company. Because that was Agora is all about.
On behalf of Hello Tomorrow, that we’re really happy to hear that.
I think Hello Tomorrow is doing a fantastic job of putting the light on people that you didn’t know are out there, creating amazing things. There are so many amazing teams as part of this competition, and all of them deserve to have a fantastic future. And honestly, the future is not that bad, looking at everything I saw there. If all of them are given a chance, things will look fantastic!