Sand-based battery startup Altern? secures US$1.5M

Adgully Bureau |

Altern? has successfully secured over $US 1.5 million in an oversubscribed round co-led by leading impact & VC funds The Radical Fund (Singapore) and Touchstone Partners (Vietnam), with participation from Antler (Vietnam), Impact Square (Korea), and Glocalink (Singapore) along with grants from international organizations, surpassing its initial seed funding target.

Altern? was also one of the 3 winning teams of Net Zero Challenge 2023, a climate innovations competition in Vietnam organized by Touchstone Partners and Temasek Foundation.

Altern? provides an innovative thermal energy storage solution utilizing sand battery technology tailored for agricultural applications across drying, warming, or heating needs. This patented technology comprises insulated sand with custom heat-conducting tubes. It ensures a seamless transition to low-carbon agricultural practices, while enabling substantial cost savings for customers in a price-sensitive sector, compared to conventional grid energy and lithium-ion batteries currently available in the market.

Team Altern? alongside client

One of Altern?’s first clients, Ecovi Farm in Khánh Hoà, Vietnam led by founder Na Nguyen , launched the carbon-neutral drying system for not only achieving economic goals but also for its alignment with sustainable development directives. In a grid-less, sunny area, Ms. Na opted for solar panels and sand batteries to store thermal energy for drying mangoes and herbs. The farm uses photovoltaic panels and sand batteries instead of grid electricity, ensuring a stable heat source unaffected by weather conditions and enabling continuous drying capacity.

Na estimates a significant reduction in electricity costs with the current drying capacity, potentially saving approximately $300 to $350 monthly. This amounts to an annual saving of $3,600 to $4,200, against an initial investment of less than $20,000 for the sand battery system.

“With a five-year payback period not accounting for machinery depreciation, the investment is highly cost-effective for our farm. This helps my farm produce processed agricultural products at much more competitive prices," Na shares.

During operation, Altern?'s team remotely monitors and updates algorithms from their R&D lab in Ho Chi Minh City, ensuring timely technical support for clients and enhancing usage efficiency.

Set to deploy the sand battery system for a tea processing plant in June 2024, Thuan Do, CEO and founder of DoTea in the highland of Vietnam, plans to use this system for wilting and drying tea. "We've adhered to the 'clean tea' value for years and now aim to take a new step towards 'clean tea from clean energy,'" he says.

In B?o L?c, most factories and farms utilize wood, gas, or oil for processing and storing agricultural products (usually tea, coffee, fruit). Wood, though cheaper, harms the environment, pollutes the air, and its supply is dwindling. "There have been times when factories had to compete for wood to meet production needs," Thu?n adds.

Both Thu?n and Na plan to boost their production in 2024, especially given the positive signs in agriculture in the first two months of the year (according to the General Statistics Office). Additionally, Vietnam's industrial production index rose by 5.7% compared to the same period in 2023, signaling economic growth but also posing challenges in providing continuous electricity for production activities.

Altern? Team Showcases Zero-Emission Drying Solution for the Tea Industry

The increasing demand for thermal energy in agriculture, coupled with extreme climate change, underscores the importance of finding clean, sustainable energy sources to reduce carbon emissions. "With the upcoming carbon tax (CBAM) by the European Union on imported products, our vision not only contributes to reducing carbon emissions in agriculture but also enhances the competitiveness of Vietnamese companies on the international market with products meeting global green standards," says Hai Ho, co-founder & chief commercial of Altern?.


The Altern? team

Altern? is developing industrial versions of its sand battery systems with current capacities ranging from 250 kWh and up to 1.8 megawatts. This will significantly save energy and reduce annual carbon emissions for farms and agricultural enterprises worldwide.

Altern? Production Facility

Previously, Altern? also received grants from international foundations, including $US 200,000 from Temasek Foundation, $US 350,000 from P4G and $US 40,000 from Japan International Cooperation Agency. Additionally, the company has garnered support from notable organizations such as JETRO, Qualcomm, NUS, Leave A Nest, BSSC, IBP, Hanns Seidel Foundation, Climate Launchpad,CCS, VSV, ASSIST, New Energy Nexus, and Becamex, further bolstering its mission towards sustainable energy solutions. 

Alina Truhina, CEO and Managing Partner of The Radical Fund, co-leading the round, shared: “We are very excited to be backing Alterno, who are poised to transform the application of thermal energy through novel battery technology across Southeast Asia, as well as globally - such as potential future markets of Africa, Middle East and Latin America. Alterno’s integrated hardware and proprietary software currently decarbonizes Southeast Asia’s agricultural sector, which contributes to 11% of the region’s GDP and 13% of GHG emissions. The company is a first-of-a-kind (FOAK) thermal battery and is the only low-duration thermal energy storage (LDTES) startup in Southeast Asia addressing the agricultural sector.”

In recent years, green environment, green economy, and green growth have become a priority for global investors. According to PwC's "Global Investor Survey," over 75% of investors have identified or decided to invest in businesses focused on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. Furthermore, the report highlights that green startups and businesses are becoming focal points and preferred investment trends among global investors.

Tu Ngo, General Partner at Touchstone Partners, shared: "At Touchstone, we are deeply invested in backing ventures that combat climate change in Vietnam. By making sustainable heating solutions accessible and affordable through sand battery technology, Altern? is enabling farmers to adopt greener practices, contributing significantly to Vietnam's goal of net-zero emissions and, equally important, reducing operational costs in the agricultural sector. As the demand for thermal battery storage solutions grows globally, the scalability of this technology underscores its potential to meet increasing needs and contribute to broader sustainability goals.”