Clean energy challenge needs tech innovation, not hype over ‘poster child’ solutions: entrepreneur Vijay Prateik

India should leverage advanced green engineering for growth, says our Sustainability Leadership A-List winner and co-founder of a Delhi-based energy storage start-up looking to expand across Asia and the United States.

vijay prateik demitasse
Vijay Prateik is the co-founder and chief executive of deMITasse Energies, a start-up building a power plant and energy storage system that can make use of waste industrial heat sources. Image: deMITasse Energies.

Most people are familiar with the role of solar and wind power in the energy transition. Many would also know about how clean hydrogen fuel and large batteries are trying to break into the market.

But electrical engineer Vijay Prateik believes there are still gaps left to fill.

The world, he says, needs ways of storing power that are durable and easy to transport, while the heat radiating from industrial boilers and smelters can also be utilised.

The 32-year-old first-generation entrepreneur has been trying to solve both problems with a new form of energy storage that uses thermal energy, instead of electricity, as the primary input. His solution involves pairing a generator with advanced materials – ones that can store and release heat from their chemical bonds on command. The combination, he notes, gives way to a power plant that can run on waste industrial heat rather than fossil fuels to either send electricity back to factories or into power grids to support the installation of intermittent renewables. This is what Prateik’s start-up, deMITasse Energies, founded in 2011, is trying to realise.

While such thermo-chemical applications are nascent with few players in the space, Prateik remains undeterred, and determined to find ways to reduce costs in the next few years to ensure the commercial viability of his solution. DeMITasse Energies has received backing from government, research and corporate stakeholders in India.

He returned home to India from the US after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to work on his start-up, but is now considering an expansion back in the United States, and setting up a research base in Singapore.

Prateik believes that the climate and clean energy challenge requires a greater focus on nascent technologies to decarbonise areas that traditional renewable power struggles in. Policymakers should also refrain from making exaggerated promises in “poster-boy” clean technologies, such as solar and wind, he added.

On the back of his Sustainability Leadership A-List win, Eco-Business caught up with Prateik to hear more about his future plans, thoughts on India’s sustainability innovation scene, and what it will take to decarbonise the world’s most populous country.

Bangalore research prototype Demitasse

They don’t have the gleam of solar panels, nor the aerodynamic curves of new-build electric cars. But the energy storage and power plant system deMITasse Energies is developing, a prototype of which built in Bangalore, India, shown here, could help generate power using waste heat from industrial boilers and furnaces, a vastly untapped energy source today. Image: deMITasse Energies.

What materials are you using for thermo-chemical energy storage?

We developed our own inorganic synthetic chemicals. As a comparison, there is this class of naturally occurring mineral called zeolites, which can react with polar substances like water and chlorine to give up energy in a reversible process.

The big challenge is agglomeration, where, after a couple of cycles, zeolites form a rock-like structure with lower thermal conductivity. This is why such materials have not found many commercial applications outside of laboratories. We are among a handful of companies across the globe that have perfected its use.

We also have our own working fluids and catalysts, which when used together, make a well-oiled machine.

How has 2023 been for deMITasse Energies?

We had a very good 2023. Two major companies partnered with us, and have made progress in expanding abroad.

One is Larsen & Toubro, which is one of the biggest military manufacturers here in India and is working on an unmanned submarine project. Getting energy without combustion was a key issue for them. Coincidentally, deMITasse Energies was initially formed to solve this exact problem with the US Navy. Having a military manufacturer come back to us for the same application we started with was sort of a nice loop back for us.

The second company is Thermax, one of the world’s largest boiler manufacturers. We are involved in developing their next-generation boilers with energy storage technology. That is a huge vote of approval from the industrial sector. 

We are also setting up our US company. We will be moving our headquarters there, and we have started hiring people. We were offered to move to Colorado by the governor in 2021, but Covid-19 delayed things. We’ve now hired a former advisor to US president Joe Biden, who is on our team for the US expansion. The market for energy storage is very developed there, and we are looking forward to building a demonstration plant in May, sort of like a show-and-tell, which we did in India last year.

We currently have a five-kilowatt system with energy storage for about 50 hours in New Delhi, and the one in the US will be similar. 

What is your long-term vision?

I believe the scale we can reach is significantly larger. We want to reach about 300-megawatt baseload supply with at least 72 hours of grid-scale storage in the next five years.

We are focusing in the next five years primarily in the United States and back home – which includes India and the larger Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific market. Today, India lets about 20,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of energy go to waste every year, while the US wastes about 10,000MWh, from their industries.

These markets are huge for us – we will need to develop huge production capabilities and manufacture specialised products for each market because of their different environmental conditions and requirements.

In fact, we are currently considering if we should relocate our India office to Singapore, because of talent. India has many engineers but they are mostly in infotech and software. Singapore, on the other hand, is a very strong research and development base with more favourable tax rates and financial regulation.

So we are looking at having about 40 to 50 staff in the US focusing on research and development, and sales. In Singapore, we would have 10 to 15 staff only in research and development, primarily in nano and synthetic chemistry. This is up from the 12 employees we have now.

How’s funding coming along?

We are looking to close our Series A funding in March or April this year. We are very close to closing some deals, at a ballpark of about US$10 million.

Why only pursue Series A funding now?

I was approached by venture capital firms earlier, but I had enough savings to get by, especially when I didn’t have employees and overhead costs, so it was relatively easy to bootstrap. All the funding I received earlier went to developing the chemicals.

In hindsight, while things may have moved quicker if I had accepted funding earlier, it didn’t seem right to accept money for something that wasn’t yet developed.

In 2022 we chose to raise a pre-Series A fund to build the demonstration prototype in Delhi. The reason we are raising Series A funding now is to expand to the US, commercialise the technology, and hire high-quality employees.

What got you into the sustainability space initially? I know you started with a military background, but later pivoted.

I am an electrical engineer, and I have been interested in a few spaces. Sustainability and renewables is one of them, while military is another.

On renewables, a lot of people believe that renewables will save the planet. I also believe that renewables is the way forward. But we are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels and will likely continue to do so for another 30, 40…maybe 100 years. Fossil fuels are just too efficient of an energy source. So it is a sort of mission for me to solve this problem.

When I was in college, I also came up with a small bladeless hydropower turbine in Northern India, in the Himalayan region, for the isolated villages without access to electricity. While the turbine worked well at low stream velocities,  there was red tape and I was busy studying, so the project never really went further.

So I’ve always found the sustainability space to be a hotbed of innovation. There is so much that can be done.

For my current work, we had initially pivoted from a military focus to vehicles – reusing waste heat in cars to recharge batteries. But Tesla was already a thing in the US then, and competing against them would be difficult, so we pivoted again to stationary energy applications – this is where we have been in the past seven years or so.

Aren’t you competing in the same space as clean hydrogen fuel?

There are a lot of techno-commercial issues with hydrogen. It works on smaller scales, but if you have to replace the entire supply chain it becomes extremely difficult – especially since it is difficult to store securely. Fuel cells are also expensive. Hydrogen is not going to be mainstream for the next 10 to 20 years, at least.

That said, we have many areas of synergy with hydrogen. We can definitely be a hydrogen carrier, or store energy from burning hydrogen for easier transport into remote areas, by lorry for instance.

India is a huge, fast-growing country. What do you think is most needed to speed up the energy transition in the country?

As I said, when I was in college and working on my side project, the red tape was a nightmare. India always had a separate ministry for new and renewable energy, but it never really did much [India also has separate ministries for coal, oil and gas, and power]. 

But today, things are easier. The government is looking at innovative solutions from both big and small companies, so that is a great step in the right direction. We see the same trend in the US.

The issue is also that we tend to have this poster child – the key technologies that get all the attention – which are wind and solar. Now you probably can include lithium-ion [batteries] too. But the problem is these technologies have already been around for three decades, and they are at some level of maturity. There is only so much that can be done; if they were supposed to solve the climate crisis they would already have done that a decade back.

Solar Power Plant Telangana II in state of Telangana, India, 12-MWp DC

A 12-megawatt peak solar farm in Telangana, India. The country wants to have 500 GW of installed power capacity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. Solar power capacity reached over 70 GW last year. Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Thomas Lloyd Group.

So we need to stop overpromising. India does a lot of these theatrics, for instance, by speaking of 100 per cent clean energy in the coming decades. The numbers don’t lie, it is not going to happen. Some years ago Nitin Gadkari, the road transport and highways minister, had claimed that all vehicles in India would be zero-emission, and companies not interested would close shop. He later softened his stance. Such activities may give good political mileage but do not provide clarity on the way forward.

The more realistic approach is to focus on newer technologies that can solve clean energy issues. Beyond deMITasse Energies, there are other developments, for instance, batteries promising to cost as low as US$40 a kilowatt-hour. Also, energy efficiency technologies are often very overlooked.

You’ve said before that you are inspired by the amount of innovation coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where you studied. What do you think is needed for Indian institutions to match the level of MIT in the clean energy space?

We’re not there yet, but then again, the Indian Institutes of Technology (or IITs – about two dozen public varsities nationwide) are about 60 years old, and MIT has been around for over 160 years.

The thing is, India today has become very focused on infotech, software and services. When I was in an IIT over 10 years back, people were talking about advancing core technologies, handling liquid nitrogen and so on. Today, IITs have become a hotbed for start-ups, for making business plans and figuring out ways to ship soap to your house in five minutes.

That is a worthwhile pursuit, but core technologies should not be neglected – so this is one area we are lacking. I returned to India from the US to start deMITasse Energies, because I thought India would benefit from our technology, but hiring has been difficult, especially for research and development.

The former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, published a book a few weeks back, arguing whether India should move away from manufacturing, as it is something countries like China have taken over. I’ve always had huge respect for Raghuram, but it was demoralising to hear his argument.

After all, all first-world countries have leveraged manufacturing and innovation to get to the top. While India is good at low-innovation manufacturing, say, of conventional boilers, building something new is where we are lagging, and where countries such as Japan and Singapore have continued to excel in. India, in short, needs to play catch up – especially in the field of green technologies.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.  

Vijay Prateik was one of 10 sustainability leaders selected for the Eco-Business A-List 2023. Read our stories with the other winners here.

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