As a Matter of Fact, it is Rocket Science: Iron-Based Fuel Powered by MIF

New technology by McGill entrepreneurs and their spinoff Altiro Energy uses iron as a fuel alternative to greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels. With support from the McGill Iinnovation Fund (MIF), they aim to test the project on a commercial scale and decarbonize the future of energy.


(Editor's note: this team is part of the 2nd cohort, which was awarded funds in 2023. 3rd cohort teams will be featured in future articles.)

Imagine a fuel that is infinitely rechargeable and produces no harmful emissions. A fuel that has high energy density, zero volatility and is abundantly available. Sounds too good to be true? Think again. Because the team at Altiro Energy – with the support of the McGill Innovation Fund – is working to bring this miracle energy system to market in the near future.

The core of their system is an iron-based fuel that can be burned over and over again to produce electricity while generating zero harmful emissions. In a post-COP28 world, where for the first time, countries have agreed to move away from fossil fuels, Altiro’s metal fuel technology is well-suited to decarbonize energy production.

In truth, using metal as fuel is nothing new, and has been around since the 1950s. NASA’s well known Space Shuttle used a solid propellant rocket fuel, based on aluminum. Professor Jeff Bergthorson has been dedicated to decarbonizing energy systems for the past 15 years and identified metal powders as a promising alternative to carbon-based fuels.

He founded the Alternative Fuels Lab to focus his research on these materials and it was here where the founders of Altiro Energy Samson Bowen-Bronet and Martin Aralov met when doing their Masters in Engineering at McGill.

“I met Martin in the lab. We started working on this new iron fuel technology and we were successful in developing the technology almost right off the bat,” explained CEO Samson Bowen-Bronet. “After applying for a patent through McGill we looked at what our options were, and we really wanted to take this technology out of the lab and into the market.”

Circular energy to close the loop

iron flame ablaze in a glass cylinderThe technology they use to create a decarbonized energy cycle is fairly simple. Altiro uses its proprietary system to deliver high-grade heat to burn the iron-powder, producing energy while generating zero harmful emissions.

“The idea is that you keep reusing the same material over and over again. Once the iron has been burned to generate energy, it is turned into rust. Rust, which is oxidized metal, can be regenerated back into the pure metal form. So, iron can be used as a clean source of energy since it can be reused after being depleted,” explained Aralov.

Iron powder is recharged using green renewable energy and easily stored for extended periods of time. Unlike other energy storage systems such as batteries, iron-based powder can hold energy without self-discharging. Self-discharging is when the battery loses energy despite not being used, such as a smartphone that slowly loses energy when it’s not being used.

“The batteries that you use such as AA batteries, they can stay on the shelf for some time and the self-discharge isn’t significant. But, when we’re talking about the industrial scale it’s huge amounts of energy and batteries self-discharge have a significant effect,” described Aralov.

Why iron?

As Samson jokes in the interview, the laboratory had almost the entire periodic table of the elements to choose from, so why did they choose iron? The major factor in favor of iron: its abundance. Iron is one of the most common metals in the world and composes over a third of the earth by mass. It can be sourced by mining or reclaimed from scrap metals.

Iron mining is currently not particularly environmentally friendly, however this is offset by its constant reuse. Unlike fossil fuels which can only be burned once, iron powder can be burned indefinitely.

“Since you’re using the same material for 10 or 15 years, the initial environmental impact really gets minimized over time. There may be some emissions in terms of procuring the iron, but because of how much it gets used those emissions really get amortized,” said Aralov. [This is similar to how hydroelectric dams have a large carbon impact at their construction but when considering their lifetime, the initial impact is negligible.]

Integrating with other renewables

The main impact of the technology is obvious: it provides a circular process to create energy while generating no carbon emissions. Another important benefit is that it can be implemented in already existing global energy infrastructure, unlike other clean energy solutions.

“I would say from a green perspective, it’s extremely competitive and promising. Especially compared to hydrogen battery technology, ammonia and all the other current alternatives out there,” said Nic Pinkerton, the company’s COO.

One particularly useful impact of the technology is that the fuel is recharged using renewable resources such as solar or wind power. Solar energy and wind power are a valuable part of the transition to clean energy, but there is often a mismatch between the production of energy and the needs. There are some options to store the power produced by green energy, ranging from lithium-ion batteries to molten salt, but these are costly, impractical and often unsustainable.

“More and more wind and solar farms are being built but you need a way to store that energy and bring it to the people that need it,” explained Bowen-Bronet. “It’s great that we have solar panels in Northern Quebec but how are you going to use that energy in Montreal? Or what about a sunny day when you don’t need energy and then a cloudy day when you do?”

“We need to be able to connect all of these pieces together and we believe it's through our iron fuel that we can make the most of renewable energy resources,” he added.

The team has demonstrated the feasibility of the project on a lab scale and are eager to move to pilot testing.

“Over the next two years we’re going to take it from lab scale to a precommercial prototype outside the lab. We want to partner with somebody in heavy industry and have a demonstration unit to show that the technology can work in an actual application and not just in a lab-controlled space,” detailed Pinkerton.

MIF provides a foot in the door

“Winning the MIF last year really set us on a good path. As a young company, it’s hard to get people to invest in you, to get the funds to apply for a patent, for legal fees and other business fees, etc. So just getting that first bit of funding, getting your foot in the door is very helpful,” conveyed Bowen-Bronet.

The MIF’s funding truly helped kickstart Altiro, indeed the company’s first bank account was opened using the funds it received through the MIF.

“We also had the research advisory board which was very helpful in giving us advice and helping us make connections. Even if everything doesn’t work out, just putting your name out there and having people talking about you, it really helps give you credibility,” added Aralov.

The company’s CEO took note of the distinctiveness of the MIF as a program for university entrepreneurs.

“I think it's a really great program that other universities don’t necessarily have. The opportunity for non-dilutive funding, the fact that you can be helped so much early on but you’re not giving up a piece of the company is a really unique opportunity and there aren’t so many of those out there,” said Bowen Bronet.

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