LOS ANGELES - Jay Whitacre wants to change the world with batteries - and the recipe for change, he believes, is in everyday materials like salt and water.
Although he can geek out on complicated lectures on battery technology, last week at The Compass Summit in Los Angeles, Whitacre told me in much more simple terms about how his battery technology works. Using sodium ions instead of lithium, Whitacre's batteries have been designed to store energy for the grid.
After spending two years figuring out the ideal chemistry for non-toxic batteries, Carnegie Mellon engineering professor Whitacre spun his technology into a startup company called Aquion Energy in January 2010. Pre-production of the sodium-ion batteries is expected this fall, and the production plant is on track to begin in 2013.
In September, Aquion announced a round of $30 million in funding from Foundation Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byer, Advanced Technology Ventures, and Triple Point Capital, to build its first factory. The batteries are designed for stationary applications in residential and buildings. The plan is to start with smaller installations and move into major ones.
Aquion Energy's technology has received some recognition: Last week, the company won a United Nations award for energy at The World Technology Summit. Even though lithium is a common technology used in iPhones or computers, it's expensive, it needs organic solvents, and has high purity requirements. The other alternative is lead acid batteries, which are known to release toxic lead.
With that in mind, Pittsburgh-based Aquion Energy is making batteries out of non-toxic materials. The anode is made of carbon, while the cathode is made from manganese oxide. The battery is made of individual units that are put together into 8 batteries of 15V modules.
"Electrical power is the only commodity sold in the world right now without any kind of warehousing. When you plug something into the wall, you immediately pull energy from a generation asset. It's not stored anywhere. We store data, water, and gas. We do not store electricity. Historically, it's just been too expensive," Whitacre said.
"For the first time, renewable power sources are competitive with traditional, especially in developing countries," Whitacre said. Lead acid batteries aren't as good as the manufacture promised. Aquion's batteries have a much longer life. "We believe we can last 5 to 10 times longer than lead acid at the same price point," he said.
To design batteries that would be competitive, Whitacre found common, cheap materials to use: carbon, manganese, water, and different kinds of cheap plastics. For instance, one of the key ingredients is manganese, which is the cheapest metal oxide on the market. And it's possible to reconfigure carbon, so it can be taken from corn syrup or other forms of carbon.
"We have been very conscious of manufacturing. It's about taking cheap materials and being able to reconfigure them," Whitacre said, explaining why the company plans on using food processing, pharmaceutical processing, and other kinds of techniques that aren't usually found in high-tech manufacturing plants.
In general, VCs have invested heavily into energy storage, even more than solar. According to Pike Research, the potential market for energy storage is expected to exceed $20 billion by 2021. Besides Aquion's recent round of funding, Boston-Power received $125 million and Nexeon raised $65 million.
Like Aquion, which had its roots in university research, Liquid Metal Battery offers a way to store energy on the grid, using a liquid battery technology that spun out of MIT.
However, using batteries to store renewable energy is relatively new. Utilities have begun to roll out smaller storage units closer to the consumers, a move away from the traditional, large storage systems in place. Why the push? There is more solar and wind energy that is being added to the grid. Wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine, so there needs to be a way to capture the renewable energy generated.
"It's pretty exciting to take something from a basic material idea to shipping things to people to try out in the field. Sure, there are a lot of folks who are developing batteries for the grid. All of them are 10 to 15 years away from being a legitimate player in the market place," Whitacre said. "We are an unusual case. We are growing really quickly. We are entering the market next year."