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Why VCs are flocking to Aquion Energy's novel battery

Posting in Energy
Aquion Energy announced Thursday it has raised $30 million in a venture financing round led by Foundation Capital that will enable the energy storage start-up to produce its cheap, nontoxic modular batteries on a commercial scale.  Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Advanced Technology Ventures and TriplePoint Capital also participated in the funding round.

Aquion, which has developed a sodium-ion aqueous electrolyte battery, will begin shipping it first pre-production energy storage systems this fall, according to a company press release. The company also is in the process of selecting a site for its first high-volume factory in the United States. The manufacturing facility is expected to be operational in 2013 and create up to 500 jobs.

Unlike other start-ups that drift in obscurity before attracting VC attention, Aquion's founder Jay Whitacre enjoyed support from high-profile investor Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers at its earliest stage. And for good reason.

Out of his research at Carnegie Mellon University, Whitacre developed a low-cost efficient modular battery that uses benign materials (sodium and water), functions in a wide range of temperatures and can be used for grid-scale energy storage and off-the-grid wind and solar support.  In other words, the ideal storage device to help bring more renewable energy onto the power grid.

Aquion is hardly the only company touting its "revolutionary" tech. The energy storage market is teeming with companies hoping raise enough VC funds bring their tech from the lab to a commercial scale.  And that market is expected to grow. A report released by Pike Research this summer predicted a total worldwide investment of more than $122 billion in energy storage projects between 2011 and 2021.

Foundation Capital and the other investors are betting that Aquion's will not only have a role in how that market develops, but could be a game-changer. Aquion's battery -- if it proves to be as reliable, low cost and maintenance free as its creators claim -- could remove the primary obstacle to the widespread adoption of clean energy.

All utility-scale projects suffer from the same problem: When the sun sets and the wind stops blowing, utilities have to turn to another power source such as coal or natural gas. But a cheap, maintenance free and nontoxic battery could be widely used to store the energy produced during the day (or while the wind is blowing) and then release later when it's needed.

Thumbnail photo: Flickr user Eli Francis

— By on September 8, 2011, 6:19 AM PST

Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure