The Battery That Lasts Forever
A Silicon Valley startup run by old-school technologists has invented an energy storage device that could take an entire neighborhood off the grid.
Needless to say, Imergy is not developing the next $19 billion app that Facebook will acquire, but the startup could end up powering Facebook.
"Basically, our battery lasts forever."
This magic box is called a Vanadium redox flow battery. The heart of a flow battery are two electrolyte solutions – one positive, one negative – contained in separate tanks. When the solutions are pumped through a power cell containing a membrane, a chemical reaction takes place that generates electricity. When the process is reversed, the electrolyte stores energy.
The key component is Vanadium, a naturally occurring element that can exist in positive and negative states, eliminating the contamination and degradation that occurs when two different elements are used to create a chemical reaction. Flow batteries are not as efficient as solid-state lithium-ion batteries. But unlike lithium-ion batteries that lose their capacity over time as they charge and discharge, the non-toxic electrolyte in a vanadium flow battery is endlessly reusable and never loses its efficiency.
“Basically, our battery lasts forever,” says Bill Watkins, Imergy’s chief executive and a Valley veteran who served as the CEO of LED lighting startup Bridgelux and before that Seagate, a manufacturer of hard drives (remember those?).
Imergy is one of a growing number of companies, from automaker Honda to solar installer SolarCity and Tesla, that see a big market in taking homes and businesses off the grid.
“As more people go solar, they’re going to tell their utility, ‘I’m not going to sell you my electricity. I’m going to get a battery at low cost to run my home and I don’t need the grid,’ ” says Watkins.
Vanadium flow batteries are not new – an Australian scientist named Maria Skyllas-Kazacos invented the technology in 1985. But there was a catch. Two, actually. The battery needed pure and pricey Vanadium to work. And the fact that the electrolyte became unstable at 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) limited the usefulness of the batteries.
“The electrolyte was always the one cost you couldn’t squeeze because you needed pure Vanadium,” says Tim Hennessy, Imergy’s president, who previously ran a Vanadium battery company in China. “So the batteries ended up being about 50 percent more expensive.”
But Imergy claims it has made a big breakthrough. First, chief technology officer Majid Keshavarz developed a novel electrolyte chemistry that allows Imergy to use a lower-grade of Vanadium that can be extracted from iron ore waste, oil sludge or fly ash generated by coal-powered power plants.
That lets Imergy cut its Vanadium costs by a third, according to Watkins, and ensure a supply of the metal. (A competitor, American Vanadium, plans to operate its own Vanadium mine in Nevada.)
Plus the new chemistry lets Imergy’s batteries operate in temperatures as high as 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit) without an expensive cooling systems, opening up markets in India, Africa and other hot, electricity-starved regions that rely on pollution-spewing diesel generators for power.
Imergy won’t begin commercial production of its batteries until this summer but for the past two years it has been operating 5-kilowatt versions of the battery in India. In a control room at Imergy’s Fremont, California, headquarters, a video screen monitors the operation of the 70 battery units, many of them at telecommunications installations.
The room also contains a 5-kilowatt battery – which will sell for between $10,000 and $20,000 – and a bigger 30-kilowatt box. While you might put the smaller battery – it's about the size of a big tool cabinet – in your garage, flow batteries are too bulky to power cars or computers.
“We know everyone in the Valley,” says Watkins.
Dean Frankel, an energy storage analyst with market research firm Lux Research, doubts Imergy will hit that number, noting that the company has yet to secure a supply of low-grade vanadium from fly ash or sludge.
“I believe that they claim they can extract vanadium from sludge but what I don’t believe is that they can do it cost-effectively at scale today,” Frankel told The Atlantic.
Apparently Imergy’s customers think they can. Watkins says paying clients include telecommunications firms in India and deals have been signed with well-known U.S. companies, though he declined to name them.
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