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Batteries

Published on May 11th, 2020 | by Steve Hanley

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Will Form Energy Aqueous Air Battery Challenge Tesla For Grid Storage Dominance?

May 11th, 2020 by  


Last week, Tina Casey wrote about the agreement between Form Energy and Great River Energy that will see a 1 MW/150 MWh aqueous air battery installed and operational sometime in 2023. What is an aqueous air battery? No one knows much about the technology and the company is being very tight-lipped about it.

The question is whether it will supplant lithium-ion storage batteries from Tesla and others for grid-scale energy storage. Tesla has been very active in providing lithium-ion battery storage systems to utility companies. From Kauai to Samoa and South Australia, its battery installations have proven cost effective and reliable, often paying for themselves more quickly than anyone thought possible.

Tesla has also pioneered virtual power plants in Vermont and South Australia that network hundreds or even thousands of home storage batteries so they can provide backup electricity to home owners while simultaneously helping to stabilize the local grid. Recently, Tesla signaled its intent to expand its energy business by applying for a license to become a recognized generator of electricity in the UK.

But so far, most lithium-ion grid-scale storage facilities are not able to supply electricity to the grid for more than 2 to 4 hours. The Form Energy system promises energy storage that lasts days. It also appears to be significantly cheaper than conventional lithium-ion batteries.

Form Energy founders. Image courtesy Form Energy.

What Is Form Energy?

Form Energy is a tech startup founded by Mateo Jaramillo, who used to work at Tesla Energy. He is joined by Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor of materials science at MIT; Ted Wiley, who co-founded the salt water battery company Aquion; Billy Woodford, formerly of 24M; and Marco Ferarra, who holds a Ph.D from MIT.

The company has raised over $50 million in funding from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the clean energy incubator backed by Bill Gates; Eni Next, the corporate venture capital arm of the Italian energy firm Eni Spa; and The Engine, MIT’s investment program. It has been operating in stealth mode until now.

What Is An Aqueous Air Battery?

We know CleanTechnica readers, being unusually well informed and technically sophisticated, will demand to know the technical details of the aqueous air battery. Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about it at this time. As PV Magazine observes, “The term, ‘aqueous air battery system’ leaves us little more informed about the startup’s technology than when it was stealthed.” Aqueous is defined as “of or containing water, typically as a solvent or medium,” which brings to mind the salt water battery technology once touted by Aquion.

In an interview with NPR last year, Chiang dropped a hint about the chemistry used by the new batteries. “Lithium-ion batteries use not only lithium, but they also use nickel. They use cobalt. They may use iron and manganese. And all of these elements have a cost to them. But what we’re looking for are batteries that can use either metals or other elements that are much lower cost, and an example of that would be sulfur. In fact, one of the ironies is that fossil fuels, which we’re trying to get rid of, are one of the great sources of sulfur.”

Sulfur is a byproduct of the refinery process. The implication is the new battery may rely on an element that is so abundant it’s almost free. Sulfur and water — can ingredients that cost next to nothing make a battery that lasts for 150 hours? Perhaps we are about to find out.

Why Is This Important?

Imagine what a battery that can provide electricity for 150 hours could do for the renewable energy industry. For the past decade, the knock on renewables has been that the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t always blow. No less a personage than the alleged president of the United States has delighted in mocking renewables for just those reasons.

Jaramillo tells PV Magazine he refers to the company’s product as a “bi-directional power plant” and claims its level of duration allows for “a fundamentally new reliability function to be provided to the grid from storage, one historically only available from thermal generation resources. Our vision at Form Energy is to unlock the power of renewable energy to transform the grid with our proprietary long-duration storage. This project represents a bold step toward proving that vision of an affordable, renewable future is possible without sacrificing reliability.”

In the NPR interview, Chiang said, “The trend that we are all trying to take advantage of is the fact that renewable electricity — primarily wind and solar — has become the lowest cost form of generating electricity in many parts of the U.S. and in the world. But the problem that we have is that renewable electricity is not dispatchable. And by that term, we mean we can’t call on it for more power when we need it. You simply can’t ask the sun to produce more solar power in a given time, or for the wind to blow harder.” The ability to store energy makes our electricity more dispatchable and more reliable over longer periods of time.

Next, Chiang addressed the cost of battery storage. “Today, an electric vehicle battery pack using lithium-ion batteries costs us about $200 a kilowatt-hour. Over time, we can see that dropping to a hundred or somewhat less than that. But with lithium-ion batteries, it’s difficult for me to imagine the cost getting down to, let’s say $10 or $20 a kilowatt-hour. It turns out that’s the price range we need for storing electricity for the grid over several days. And in order to accomplish that, we really need to look at other battery materials other than lithium-ion batteries.”

Now, that does not mean the Form Energy battery costs $20 per kilowatt-hour or less. But it certainly suggests it is significantly less expensive than traditional lithium-ion battery storage. And if that is the case, BOOM! There goes the case for making electricity by burning stuff or heating stuff. Good-bye coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, and nuclear. Thanks, it’s been grand but we don’t need you any more. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!

An Independent View

Jesse Jenkins is an assistant professor at Princeton University who studies low-carbon energy systems engineering. He tells TechCrunch, “Long duration energy storage solutions will play an entirely different role in a clean electricity system than the conventional battery storage systems being deployed at scale today. Lithium ion batteries are well suited to fast bursts of energy production, but they run out of energy after just a few hours.

“A true low cost, long duration energy storage solution that can sustain output for days would fill gaps in wind and solar energy production that would otherwise require firing up a fossil fueled power plant. A technology like that could make a reliable, affordable 100% renewable electricity system a real possibility.”

Drawbacks To Flow Batteries

In the discussion to Tina’s article, several people mentioned the power output from the Form Energy battery is quite low. For instance, Troy Frank pointed out the Hornsdale battery in South Australia could supply 1 MW of electricity for 129 hours, so the advantage of the Form Energy battery over a lithium-ion battery may be less than it appears to be at first glance.

He is correct (and the rest of his comments are on point and technically accurate), which leads to this conclusion. Flow batteries like the one coming from Form Energy may become part of the energy storage mix, providing a third option between fast reacting lithium-ion batteries and long term storage from pumped hydro systems. In the end, the issue will come down to cost. As another comment on Tina’s article pointed out, pumped hydro may still be the king of really long term storage but a flow battery can be installed just about anywhere. The same is not true of pumped hydro storage.

Tesla has introduced its latest grid storage product, the 250 MW/1 GWh Megapack self-contained system that Tesla says is 60% more energy dense than the Powerpack that preceded it as it continues to drive down the cost of grid-scale energy storage. But the Form Battery appears to have the advantage when it comes to price and duration.

In the world of electric cars, there is Tesla and lots of competitors. So too should the world of energy storage offer a variety of options to fill a variety of needs.  A world powered by zero carbon electricity has long been a dream. The fact that it could happen soon and at less cost than anyone thought possible just a few years ago means the dream is a giant step closer to becoming a reality. 
 


 


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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.



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