Just In The Nick Of Time, Speedy Energy Storage For Data Centers, EV Charging, & More — CleanTechnica Interview

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Quick, what’s the fastest way to charge an electric vehicle without the risk of fire, explosive gas or thermal runaway? If you guessed lithium-ion batteries are in the mix, that’s a pretty good guess. However, there is another energy storage chemistry in town, and it could have widespread implications for the explosive growth of data centers and the surging EV market, too. Three guesses what it is.

energy storage data centers EV charging
Sodium-ion energy storage steps up to the plate as electricity grid struggles with new data centers, EV charging, 5G, COVID-19, online gaming, cryptocurrency mining…did we miss anything? (photo via Natron Energy).

Big Energy Storage Move Afoot

If you guessed sodium-ion batteries, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Earlier this week CleanTechnica caught wind of a big move by the leading sodium-ion battery developer Natron Energy. The company is poised to ramp up its data center and telecom business 10 times by 2021, thanks to a new $35 million round of funding from ABB Technology Ventures, NanoDimension Capital, and Volta Energy Technologies.

The new investors join Chevron, Khosla Ventures, and Prelude on the Natron roster, so it looks like things are cooking. Natron plans to expand its reach in a wide range of scale, from edge and distributed computing to massive data centers and telecom infrastructure. Large scale industrial applications are also part of the plan, and there is an interesting EV angle in the mix which we’ll get to in a minute.

Why Sodium-Ion For Energy Storage?

For those of you new to the topic of sodium-ion batteries, they have been bouncing around on the CleanTechnica radar for a while now, ever since we heard that John Goodenough of the University of Texas — who is credited with fostering lithium-ion batteries into the energy storage fold — is involved in the field.

Two key advantages of sodium-ion technology are cost and sustainability, including the potential for using local bio-based sources in the battery manufacturing supply chain. For example, researchers in Germany are exploring the use of local agricultural waste in sodium-ion energy storage chemistry.

Faster charging cycles and longer lifespan are another pair of benefits.

Among Natron Energy’s contributions to the field is the use of an iron-based, dark blue synthetic pigment called Prussian Blue, aka Paris Blue or Berlin Blue according to our friends over at Wikipedia.

Aside from artistic applications, Prussian Blue pops up in medicine, machine making, laundry, and now energy storage. It is inexpensive, nontoxic, and easy to produce at scale.

Energy Storage & Data Centers

Natron co-founder and CEO Colin Wessells spent some time on the phone with CleanTechnica earlier this week to discuss the emerging market for sodium-ion batteries. Following are his remarks, edited for flow and clarity.

CleanTechnica: Let’s start off with the technology. What are the advantages over lithium-ion batteries?

Wessells: Sodium is abundant and inexpensive. The more interesting thing about using sodium to store energy in a battery is there is a much broader range of electrode materials. Li-ion needs special characteristics so there is a relatively narrow range. With sodium broader spectrum of applications

With Prussian Blue electrodes, the battery can fully charge and discharge sodium ions in just a few minutes.

CleanTechnica: What are the implications for data centers?

Wessells: So take a lead acid battery or Li-ion battery, they are not designed to discharge rapidly. If the application calls for quick charge-recharge — let’s take data centers, for example. They use batteries for two things. One is for backup power in case of an outage, for a minute or two until diesel generator kicks in.

The other is to upgrade to new servers that draw more power. The servers can hit a limit where the grid isn’t providing enough electricity. Since not all computers run at full speed at all times, “peak compute” can be balanced with a battery.

Data centers consume about 3% of electricity on the grid globally, and look at the number of new data centers being built. Every one is full of batteries for backup power and peak compute. The batteries in data centers represent an order of magnitude more energy storage than any other single user.

Cryptocurrency, 5G, COVID-19, Gaming, & The Grid Of The Future

CleanTechnica: Considering the growth in data centers, what are the implications for grid stability?

Wessells: Data centers will also participate in energy storage applications on electric grid, and there will be a dramatic consequences for stability of grid.

They are an under appreciated contributor to the grid of the future.

CleanTechnica: Let’s talk about the implications for renewable energy and the use of fossil fuels, for example in cryptocurrency mining.

Wessells: The biggest data center operators  are making commitments to power all or nearly all with renewables, for example are Apple, Microsoft, and Google.

However, there is a very long tail. Medium sized data center operators don’t have those resources, and they buy electricity off the grid. So it will vary country by country.

A couple of years ago the dominant growth factor was the explosion of cryptocurrency mining. Now that has abated somewhat compared to 5G data services and video conferencing.

COVID-19 is changing the data center industry. Amazon went out of capacity [momentarily] in Europe. Zoom, Teams [and other conferencing applications] are the future.

With online gaming, the telecom industry [Verizon, for example] is making investments in a lot of data center capacity to minimize latency.

Energy Storage & Electric Vehicle Charging

CleanTechnica: Electric vehicles are another growth factor. How is Natron addressing that market?

Wessells: If Li-ion is best choice for the battery in the vehicle, there are still all sorts of other technologies that go into vehicle electrification. You need high powered chargers that are efficient; [for example], if everyone is fast charging at the same time and there is not enough power on distribution grid in my neighborhood.

So, Natron is also developing products designed from ground up to support electric vehicle fast charging. We’re going to put energy storage systems at the charging stations to provide a boost for fast charge, since you can’t get it from the grid.

For strategic investors who really care about vehicle electrification, one piece of the puzzle is energy storage.

Fast-Charging EV Stations On The Way

Speaking of EV fast charging, last year Natron nailed down a grant from the California Energy Commission to deploy its Prussian Blue energy storage technology at a fast charging station located at the University of California – San Diego.

The installation complements UCSD’s work on electric vehicles and microgrids in collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as part of a broad effort to integrate 5 million electric vehicles into the California grid by 2030.

By locating energy storage at charging stations, California policy makers aim to avoid expensive distribution upgrades and customer interconnections costs.

On the consumer end, the availability of storage can also help avoid wide swings in charging costs related to demand charges.

And, on the fleet electrification side, energy storage can enable more charging stations at particular locations.

CEC and Natron anticipate that the low cost and durability of the sodium-ion formula will provide for a more cost effective approach than lithium-ion technology.

If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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Photo (cropped): via Natron Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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