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


Having Killed Coal, US Energy Dept. Aims Energy Storage Dart At Gas & Oil

The US Energy Department is banking on new energy storage technology for a green COVID-19 recovery, despite all the talk about oil and gas.

File this one under W for With Friends Like These. Under the watchful eye of noted fossil fuel fan and President* Donald J. Trump, the US coal industry has died on the vine, thanks in part to the Department of Energy’s continued pursuit of clean tech. Now the DOE is taking aim at oil and gas. Earlier this week, the DOE threw down a funding award of almost $20 million to propel a new low cost energy storage system into mass production. The effort aims straight at two fields that spell doom for fossil fuels: EV charging and grid-scale storage.

energy storage data centers EV charging

The Energy Department is banking on new energy storage technology for a green COVID-19 recovery, despite all the talk about an oil and gas renaissance (photo via Natron Energy).

What’s The Big Deal About Sodium-Ion Energy Storage?

The new energy storage system involves sodium-ion technology and not lithium-ion, and there is a good reason for that.

The DOE is interested in various forms of sodium based batteries because they could lead to a game changing improvement over conventional Li-ion technology. Sodium is the main ingredient in table salt, which means that it is both inexpensive and abundant. And also, non-toxic.

In addition, sodium-ion energy storage could provide a reclamation pathway for carbon resources, including agricultural waste.

However, before you try to DIY your own sodium-ion energy storage device with a box of Morton’s and a bowl of apple peels, take heed of the warning expressed by Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“…a typical battery’s cathode is made up of metal and oxygen ions arranged in layers. When exposed to air, the metals in a sodium battery’s cathode can be oxidized, decreasing the performance of the battery or even rendering it completely inactive,” the lab explained a while back.

Sodium-Ion Energy Storage System Takes Aim At Data Center

All of this is red meat to energy storage researchers and investors, too. On the private sector side is Natron Energy, the company that just nailed down the $20 million DOE grant.

Natron crossed the CleanTechnica radar just a couple of months ago and we had a chance to sit down with co-founder and CEO Collin Wessells, who expanded upon the virtues of the company’s sodium-ion technology.

“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 [there is a broader] spectrum of applications,” he explained.

One of those applications is data centers. Data centers are sucking up ever more of the global grid, which makes them a ripe market for new energy storage, energy efficiency, and renewable energy technology.

“Let’s take data centers, for example,” Wessell explained. “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.”

Wessell also noted that data center energy storage can be a two-way street, by contributing to grid stability.

Your Taxpayer Dollars At Work, COVID-19 Edition

Into this mix comes DOE with $$19,883,951 in funding for Natron (yes, they calculated down to the last dollar). The award was administered through the agency’s ARPA-E office for high risk, high reward research, which indicates that Natron has something special on the table.

Another hint is that Natron is one of only two companies that ARPA-E selected for fast-track status in a new, first-of-its-kind initiative called SCALEUP, for Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential.

SCALEUP is aimed at throwing a lifeline to promising technology that is struggling to cross the valley of death that blocks labwork from commercial production. That’s a big switcheroo from ARPA-E’s ongoing efforts, which primarily involve supporting R&D in the lab.

ARPA-E has some other SCALEUP awardees to announce in January 2021, but meanwhile it fast-tracked two of its selections in consideration of the economic turmoil fomented by the [badly mismanaged] COVID-19 outbreak in the US.

“ARPA-E developed the “Fast-Track” in response to disruptions in the investor and R&D financing communities caused by COVID-19, as well as related capital concerns on the part of a number of SCALEUP applicants,” the Energy Department explains.

New Energy Storage System Is Coming For Your Gasmobiles & Peaker Plants

With the $19 million and change in hand, Natron anticipates that it will scale up production of its so-named Prussian blue sodium-ion battery to the tune of 30 times, as measured by the company’s 8-kilowatt, 50-volt battery tray.

The result will be a jump to 18,000 trays annually. At that volume, Natron should be able to leverage standardization to motivate supply chain investors to climb on board.

“Natron and its partners will adapt industry-standard chemicals synthesis and battery manufacturing equipment and processes to produce Natron’s cells and battery systems for data center applications,” said the Energy Department.

“The project will also position Natron’s Prussian blue electrode sodium-ion batteries for emerging applications, such as electric vehicle fast charging and dispatchable storage for grid power,” DOE added.

Interesting! Anything that helps EV fast charging spells doom for petroleum stakeholders. Likewise, dispatchable storage is shorthand for making gas-powered “peaker” plants obsolete.

That’s interesting because Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette has been out there all summer long touting the ability of the US oil and gas industry to kickstart the COVID-19 recovery. It looks like his own agency is throwing cold water on the idea.

That’s not surprising. Apparently Secretary Brouillette has taken up the mantle of squirrel trickster from former Secretary Rick Perry, who perfected the knack of talking up fossil fuels while continuing to support his agency’s efforts to foster the clean tech revolution.

Brouillette took over the helm last fall, and his first major initiative was a $153 million round of funding aimed straight at new energy storage technology that will kill off gasmobiles and push natural gas out of the power generation picture.

So, there’s that.

Meanwhile, if the oil and gas industry is to create new jobs for the COVID-19 recovery, it seems that Brouillette is already aiming to make those jobs green jobs. To be specific, green jobs in the area of stopping methane leaks from derelict oil and gas wells.

As evidence, consider that the only other fast-tracked SCALEUP awardee is a Montana firm called Bridger Photonics.

Bridger nailed down an award of $4,572,000 for its next-generation methane leak detection and assessment system, dubbed GML for “Gas Mapping LiDAR™.”

“This innovative technology scans oil and gas infrastructure to detect and quantify leak magnitude using an aerial platform eliminating the need for costly conventional ground-crew site visits,” the Energy Department explains.

With the ARPA-E assist, Bridger anticipates improving its second-generation hardware and enhancing its predictive capabilities, while cutting costs by automating job planning, data processing, and management tools.

“The project will dramatically improve oil and gas operational efficiency for leak detection and emissions tracking, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and secure U.S. technological leadership in emissions detection and quantification,” the Energy Department enthused.

Methane leak detection has been eyeballed for green jobs before the COVID-19 outbreak, and interest in capping derelict wells has picked up this year.

North Dakota, for example, is reportedly using its COVID-19 recovery funds to cap abandoned wells, thereby creating new jobs for unemployed oil and gas workers, so keep an eye on more activity in that area as the US oil and gas industry slowly winds down.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Photo (cropped): via Natron Energy.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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