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AtmosZero is setting up a pilot unit at Colorado State University's Powerhouse Energy Campus that will be used to develop an industrial heat pump for New Belgium Brewing. New Belgium typically generates about 4,100 tons of carbon dioxide a year burning natural gas to make the steam needed to manufacture beer. (Photo provided by AtmosZero)

FORT COLLINS — The flavor of the beer is in the boiling time. For each of the New Belgium Brewing’s brews there is a specific boiling time. So, in addition to the mash of malt and grains the brewery needs lots of very hot water.

Half of New Belgium’s direct greenhouse gas emissions — about 4,100 tons of carbon dioxide a year — comes from burning natural gas to make steam, but the brewery is set to embark on an experiment to replace a gas boiler with a first-of-its-kind, industrial electric heat pump.

“It would be nice to be able to get off natural gas,” said Katie Wallace, New Belgium’s chief environment, social and governance officer.

Less than a half-mile from the brewery at Colorado State University’s Powerhouse Energy Campus, the startup company AtmosZero is putting the finishing touches on the prototype for the heat pump.

The goal of the Powerhouse trial runs is to test the hardware and develop computer controls, said Todd Bandhauer, a CSU professor of mechanical engineering and an AtmosZero co-founder. Bandhauer is the company’s chief technology officer.

The prototype is a welter of pipes, compressors and heat exchangers, leading to a steam generator that looks like a silver space capsule or, as the AtmosZero team sees it, a hippopotamus. A “Hungry Hungry Hippos” decal is pasted on its side.

“The long-term goal is not to develop a process, but a product” —  modular electric boiler — Bandhauer said.

Heat pumps work by drawing heat out of the air, even cold air, relying on an electric-run compressor. Since they do not burn any fuel, they are much more efficient and in 2022 residential heat pumps outsold furnaces.

What’s good for the house can be good for the factory, according to a study by climate policy think tank Energy Innovation.

“Heat pumps can be several times more efficient than combustion technologies because they move heat like a refrigerator or air conditioner, rather than creating heat from their input energy, and they do not lose heat in combustion exhaust gases,” according to an Energy Innovation study.

While industrial processes like making steel and cement require temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius or more — beyond the range of heat pumps — making paper, chemicals, textiles and foodstuffs need temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius, 392 degrees Fahrenheit, or less. New Belgium operates at 165 degrees Celsius.

Ramone Love pours a glass of beer for a customer at New Belgium Brewing. (Alex McIntyre, Special to The Colorado Sun)

These lower-temperature industrial processes account for about 35% of industrial heat demand in the U.S. and 7% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, the industrial market — especially for process heat — is largely untapped. In 2021, the global market for industrial heat pumps was about $68 billion, but almost all of that was for heating and cooling systems.

Heat pumps for industrial processes accounted for less than $1 billion, not even 2% of the market, according to the Energy Innovation study. Many of those were bespoke projects, especially designed for companies.

“AtmosZero is looking to have an off-the-shelf product that you can drop in for an existing package boiler,” said Neal Elliott, director emeritus at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “For a small company like New Belgium, that could be an attractive option.”

An ACEEE study calculated that heat pumps can save up to 32% of the source energy in generating process heat. “For industrial groups such as food, chemicals, and pulp and paper, our work shows IHPs could save the energy equivalent to powering 1.3 million homes,” the report said.

Part of an art installation highlighting some of the brewery’s efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins. (Alex McIntyre, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Applying mass-manufacturing economics to the problem

AtmosZero has raised $7.5 million in venture capital and received $500,000 from the Department of Energy’s program, which funds advanced energy technology projects. It has also struck an agreement with to integrate compressors from the Danish multinational heating and cooling company Danfoss into the startup’s prototype.

The basics of a residential air-source heat pump begin with a liquid refrigerant that has a very low boiling point allowing it to vaporize, even at subzero temperatures, capturing heat. A compressor condenses the vapor raising its temperature and a heat exchanger moves the heat indoors. The refrigerant, a liquid once more, is cycled to pick up more heat.

The AtmosZero prototype doubles and triples down on all these elements with multiple  compressors, heat exchangers and lines leading to the hungry hippo.

“No one has done what we are doing before, an industrial air source steam heat pump,” said Addison Stark, the company’s CEO. “We have a highly optimized design … our compressors use these highly efficient refrigerants.”

But design is only part of the solution. “The challenge has been the upfront costs,” Stark said.

The Energy Innovation analysis estimated that in 2021 capital expenditures for a heat pump — delivering heat between 100 and 160 degrees Celsius — at $870 a kilowatt, almost four times the cost of a natural gas steam boiler.

That is the reason that AtmosZero is “focusing on mass manufacturing economics,” Stark said. “From what we see from customer demand in this space we can meet demand and drive the cost down fast.”

The hatch on the kettle, a critical part of the brewing process at New Belgium Brewing . The brewery plans to replace several boilers with a heat pump system, reducing their natural gas usage by more than 90%, according to utilities and carbon neutral engineer Andy Collins. Steam from those boilers is primarily used to heat the kettle. Excess heat is captured by the pipes leading away from the kettle and is redirected into a group of hot water holding tanks outside in another bid to increase efficiency and reduce the brewery’s carbon footprint. (Alex McIntyre, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Still, there are other barriers to adoption, said Jeffrey Rissman, senior director for industry at Energy Innovation.

First there is the prospect of low natural gas prices, which makes gas-fired boilers more competitive compared to heat pumps, and then there is the general inclination to stick with technologies that companies already have and already know.

“If you switch you might need larger electricity lines, a new transformer,” Rissman said. “If you’ve done it the same way for a long time, why switch?”

Policy initiatives at the federal and state level could help tip the balance, Rissman said. The 2022 federal Inflation Reduction Act includes $10 billion in manufacturing tax credits, which could be applied to heat pumps, and another program created a $5.8 billion fund for retrofits or installations of “advanced industrial technology.”


The Colorado Energy Office has a $25 million Clean Air Grants program for manufacturing and industrial air pollution reduction projects. The first two project grants have been awarded, but not yet announced. Both are for heat pumps, Wil Mannes, an energy office associate program manager, said.

“The stage is set for what could be a steep adoption curve for industrial heat pumps,” Rissman said. “No one can predict the future of the market, but things are well set up.”

Pilot could be installed next summer at New Belgium

When the trial runs on the AtmosZero prototype are completed in the first half of 2024, the next step will be to build a 650-kilowatt pilot at the New Belgium Brewery, which will likely begin running next summer.

“We have two brewhouses of different ages and different technologies,” said Andy Collins, the brewery’s utility and carbon neutral engineer. One was built in 1995 and a second in 2001 with advanced brewing technology.  “Everything is fed from main steam headers.”

The 650-kW pilot will provide 30% to 40% of the brewery’s total steam load, Collins said, with the standard temperature of 165 degrees Celsius.

“All of our recipes’ boil times are based on that steam temperature,” Collins said. “At this elevation we boil a little bit lower. You get the mash to boil and boil it for a specific time to get a particular flavor depending on the beer we want.”

The control panel of a boiler at New Belgium Brewing Company. (Alex McIntyre, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The brewery also uses the steam to heat up fluids and caustic acids for cleaning and for pasteurizing the beer.

“We are preparing now for the electrical infrastructure to support a carbon dioxide recovery project and the heat pump,” Collins said. “We are pretty much tapped for electrical distribution. We need a larger transformer and main distribution panel that will support the heat pump and other projects.”

As outdoor temperatures fall, and there is less heat in the air, the efficiency of heat pumps declines and they labor more. “We will have to drive the compressors harder and we may take an electric penalty,” Collins said.

“A few days a year our boilers are going to work hard,” Stark said, “but in the summers, they work much less hard.”

AtmosZero will take what they learn at New Belgium, Collins said, and make “tweaks” to the heat pump on its way to a market product. “Then we will be first in line for the first commercial production version.”

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @bymarkjaffe