From studying clean tech to running an award-winning startup

Three McGill grads launch Altiro Energy to ‘revolutionize clean energy storage

Three McGill students didn’t just learn about clean tech —they launched their own startup to market a new technology developed during their graduate studies.

“We arrived on the scene at the right time and place,” says Samson Bowen-Bronet (BEng’17, MEng’21).

While an undergraduate, he took two thermodynamics courses with Prof. Jeffrey Bergthorson in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “He’s a really good teacher, really engaging,” says Bowen-Bronet. The courses examined energy systems within the context of the climate crisis. “We could see what we were learning was going to have a real impact on the world.”

Bowen-Bronet continued to the graduate level, supervised by Bergthorson, who runs McGill’s Alternative Fuels Laboratory. For more than a decade, the lab has explored the potential of metals as a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels. Metal powders, famously used in solid rocket boosters, are zero-emission, infinitely recyclable energy carriers that can be stored and transported at large scales, the lab’s researchers say.

While working on his master’s, Bowen-Bronet met fellow student Martin Aralov (BEng’17, MEng’21). They began to work on a functioning prototype that uses iron-based powder as an energy storage medium. Combining scientific and engineering perspectives, each contributed their own part in the process, making design choices reviewed by Bergthorson.

“It was a fun process,” says Bowen-Bronet, “and we were pretty successful right off the bat.” They invented the first energy system that can burn pure iron fuel with air. Since both the fuel and the recycling process have no carbon emissions, their system is carbon-free.

“Nobody’s going to do it for you”

After graduation, it was time to decide on next steps. Pursue further graduate work or start a company? “To get something out of the lab and into the real world, you have to do it through a company,” says Bowen-Bronet. “You have to push it yourself. Nobody’s going to do it for you.”

Aralov, Bergthorson and Bowen-Bronet filed an international patent application in September 2022, and Altiro Energy was formally launched in December 2022. Their goal is “revolutionizing clean energy storage,” according to their website. They chose the name Altiro as a mash-up of “alternative” and “iron”.

Nic Pinkerton (BEng’20, MEng’23) joined them as Chief Operating Officer, while Aralov is Chief Technology Officer and Bowen-Bronet is CEO — although he’s quick to point out their titles are “fluid. We make most of our decisions together by consensus.” Bergthorson is Chief Scientific Advisor for the fledgling company.

With its iron-based fuel, Altiro’s technology offers a clean energy solution that’s safe, circular, and potentially cost-competitive. It’s also “energy dense” (to replace fossil fuels, a viable alternative must have high energy densities for convenient trade and storage). So far, during their time at McGill the team has worked with Hydro-Québec and three iron powder producers, Tata Steel, Hoeganaes Corporation and Rio Tinto.

The team won Montreal’s first “Tech Shuk” pitch event in April 2022, followed by a win in January 2023 in the clean tech competition organized by the McGill Innovation Fund. Altiro is also one of 15 companies selected for the winter 2023 cohort of the Centech Propulsion program. A non-profit that supports high-tech companies and projects, Centech provides grants, mentorship, workshops, office space, and networking opportunities.

And in May 2023, Altiro nabbed the People’s Choice award at the Climate Solutions Festival in Montreal. “Our goal is to make a big impact,” says Bowen-Bronet, “to make a change on the energy system and the climate crisis.”

A solution for large-scale energy storage

Altiro’s technology has been devised for applications in large-scale energy storage. The team is aiming to target systems that can power thousands of homes at a time. So, the task now is to get a foot in the door with large utilities, private power companies, and industrial players.

Metal powders and iron scoop
Metal powders, famously used in solid rocket boosters, are zero-emission, infinitely recyclable energy carriers that can be stored and transported at large scales, the lab’s researchers say.

“We sit on Technology Readiness Level 4,” says Bowen-Brunet. “We’re looking to scale up to TRL 6 or 7. Obviously, that takes funding.” (He’s referring to benchmarks used by the Government of Canada to assess the stage of a technology’s development. TRL level 1 measures technology that is only starting to be translated into applied research and development, while level 9 refers to technology already in use in real-life conditions.)

He notes that corporations generally look for more mature technology that they can immediately implement at scale. So, his days are spent preparing presentations, running numbers, and meeting with venture capitalists and potential partners.

A key value that Altiro’s technology offers is reliable long-term storage. This is crucial, in particular, for the switch to solar and wind power, not only for the times when the sun isn’t shining or there’s no wind, but also when there’s too much sun or wind. Without a system to store it for hours, days, and weeks, the energy is lost.

“If people are serious about getting off oil, natural gas and coal, we’re going to need big-scale storage, more than what batteries can provide,” says Bowen-Bronet. Due to the energy density that metals can store by volume and mass, they could surpass batteries by huge orders of magnitude and hydrogen storage systems by many times.

Better, greener, cheaper — the elusive trifecta

Currently, the main hurdle when approaching potential clients is cost.

“Anything that’s truly green carries a premium,” says Bowen-Bronet, who notes that the private sector is still reluctant to switch to green technology if it’s more expensive. “If it’s better, greener, and cheaper, they’ll buy it. But it’s hard to have all three!”

As more renewables are put on the energy grid and their prices continue to drop through economies of scale, however, Altiro aims to position itself in the coming few years as an essential technology that can compete on cost.

For now, Bowen-Bronet is focused on convincing potential clients, partners, and investors that “we’re the solution to the problems that are coming.”

“There is no solution until you figure it out”

The biggest learning curve for the team has been how to explain their work to non-specialists such as venture capitalists, politicians, and policymakers — as opposed to talking with colleagues in their lab or in the scientific community. “I think we’ve come a long way in framing how our solution fits,” says Bowen-Bronet.

He credits McGill with helping to prepare him for this new venture.

“It was definitely worth it,” he says of his time at McGill. He notes that being a graduate student is a lot like running your own business. You manage your own time, set your own deadlines, and motivate yourself.

“When you’re working on groundbreaking stuff, there is no solution until you figure it out.”

Read about Professor Jeffrey Bergthorson and the Alternative Fuels Laboratory at McGill: “The defining challenge of our time” | Channels – McGill University

This article was originally published in the McGill Reporter.

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