When covering Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week for CleanTechnica a month ago, I got invited to interview Caleb Waugh of Lockheed Martin Energy, who is Head of Business Analytics for Energy Storage there. Yes, Lockheed Martin. Knowing how many everyday innovations originated from the military sector, from GPS to microwaves, I was curious to see what is in hiding for the energy storage industry.
Caleb started by explaining why Lockheed Martin is involved in the energy sector at all and it all came down to their century-long focus on global security. Security today is strongly related to the energy sector, and the renewable energy transition will shatter the geopolitical order we know today — shifting from government-centered to a commercial market. I pressed to see whether that geopolitical hurricane was interesting to Lockheed Martin, but Caleb made sure I understood Lockheed Martin Energy was not into the political aspect of the revolution but rather into an opportunity to introduce new technology to support the revolution. Knowing, though, how much the energy sector is correlated with security, economic growth and development, it would be hard to accept politics could be taken out of the equation entirely. I learnt, then, that Lockheed Martin Energy educated policymakers on what new technology is coming and how it may affect the laws of tomorrow. Fair enough.
My interest, then, was to find out more about the flow battery system we already covered on CleanTechnica last year. It all started with an MIT startup, Sun Catalytix, acquired by Lockheed Martin back in 2014. The company was originally focusing on a new, affordable catalyst for splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, but this vision shifted under Lockheed Martin to a new flow battery energy storage system. Caleb explained that the company had been developing energy solutions for decades and was a pioneer in PV solutions used for space projects, among many other things, but they saw the disruption coming and they knew the real challenge was system integration, grid reliability, and grid resilience.
“Electric grids have been thought of as the most complex systems of our time. (…) It’s the only market in which the market clears at the speed of light. Your supply and your demand have to be met perfectly and instantaneously all the time.”
Lockheed Martin not only sees the opportunity to introduce new technology, but more importantly, the company knows how to introduce it. The approach it takes with the project is setting the right objectives for the startup team – low cost, working on the existing supply chains, and data driven. Lockheed believes it’s all in the chemistry and they are not satisfied with simply providing good battery performance. Trying to avoid what others often use — that is, nasty materials, toxins, acidic compounds, rare metals — they look at the periodic table and choose elements that are cheap and later custom designed on a molecular level to have the properties they want in a battery.
Did I ask what the chemistry was? Of course I did. Did Caleb answer that? Of course he didn’t. Was I disappointed? No, I wasn’t. I’m realistic. It was still worth a try, though. 🙂
At the same time, Lockheed Martin, as said before, doesn’t get ahead of itself in trying to launch the product too early. The team is taking its time. Lockheed launched its Alpha system (not just a battery, but the whole system) last year, and its Beta system this year. The plan is to ramp it all up over the next two years arrive at a fully commercial product. I realize some of the readers will say, yeah, another breakthrough “next year” project. I said it myself many times. Not defending the giant here, I am happy to wait if it goes the path Caleb described. I’d rather wait than see another project launched too early and fail. At this time, I also asked if they were investing in any other storage ideas, like solid-state batteries, for example, and I learnt they weren’t. Good or bad? Good, I say. Shows they believe in the idea and are focusing on delivering a solution.
I am a dreamer myself, just like many of you, and I often catch myself dreaming about a breakthrough that will make energy storage cheap and easy, to make renewable energy stable and reliable. I asked Caleb if it was a realistic approach. He thought it would rather be a series of breakthroughs.
“It isn’t just one step huge innovation, it’s small step incremental innovations that gradually improve over time.”
Our greatest ally seems to be scale – everybody is investing into energy storage batteries today. That is the buzz in the industry and that will have the greatest impact on improving the solutions we have today and on offering the advances we are all expecting. Caleb says it’s all in the chemistry – we/they want a solution that uses cheap transition metals that are abundant and safe. Sounds about right to me.
I got pretty much all I expected from the interview – not counting on having secrets disclosed to me. I was happy to see a truly professional approach that surprisingly gave me more hope for success than I had in many other interviews with the rising stars of new technologies (like the Hyperloop guys, for example, but don’t tell them I was skeptical).
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