Home Scholarly articles A startup claims a breakthrough in long-lasting batteries

A startup claims a breakthrough in long-lasting batteries

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A four-year-old startup says it has built a cheap battery that can discharge energy for days using one of the most common elements on Earth: iron.

Form Energy Inc.’s batteries are far too heavy for electric cars. But he says they’ll be able to solve one of the most elusive problems facing renewables: storing large amounts of electricity cheaply on power grids when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t. not breathe.

The work of the Somerville, Massachusetts company has long been surrounded by confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements. He recently shared his progress with the Wall Street Journal, saying he wanted to inform regulators and utilities that if everything continued to go as planned, his iron-air batteries would be capable of affordable and long-lasting energy storage. duration by 2025.

Its backers include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a climate investment fund whose investors include the co-founder of Microsoft Corp. Bill Gates and Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos. Form recently launched a $ 200 million funding round, led by a strategic investment from steel giant ArcelorMittal HER,

YOUR 4.27%

one of the world’s leading producers of iron ore.

Form is preparing to soon produce the “type of battery you need to completely remove thermal assets like coal and natural gas power plants,” said company general manager Mateo Jaramillo, who developed the battery. Powerwall from Tesla Inc. and worked on some of its early automotive powertrains.

During a recent visit to Form’s windowless lab, Jaramillo pointed to low-cost iron-pellet-filled barrels as its key advantage in the rapidly evolving battery space. Its prototype battery, nicknamed Big Jim, is filled with 18,000 pebble-sized pieces of gray iron, an abundant, non-toxic, non-flammable mineral.

For a lithium-ion battery cell, the workhorse of today’s electric vehicles and grid-scale batteries, the minerals nickel, cobalt, lithium and manganese used currently cost between $ 50 and $ 80 per kilowatt hour. storage, analysts said.

By using iron, Form believes he will spend less than $ 6 per kilowatt hour of material storage for each cell. Packing the cells into a complete battery system will raise the price to less than $ 20 per kilowatt hour, a level at which academics have said renewables and storage could completely replace traditional fossil-fueled power plants.

A battery that can cheaply discharge energy for days on end has been a holy grail in the power industry, due to the problem it solves and the potential market it creates.

Regulators and utilities are under increasing pressure to provide affordable, reliable and carbon-free electricity, as countries around the world seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. Most of the electricity production provides two out of three. A long-lasting battery could allow renewable energies (wind and solar) to provide all three.

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The Biden administration is pushing for a carbon-free power grid in the United States by 2035, and several states and electric utilities have similar commitments. It is widely believed that a combination of wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear power combined with short-lived lithium-ion batteries can generate 80% of electricity. The remaining 20% ​​will require some type of storage over several days.

“Those first 80%, we know the technological path, and they are already cost competitive,” said Jeremiah Baumann, deputy chief of staff in the energy department. “We have a good idea of ​​the technology for the final part. The real question is which technology will cut costs and enter the market. “

Form’s battery will compete with many other approaches in what is becoming a crowded space, as an array of startups rush to develop more advanced, cost-effective energy storage techniques.

Several companies are entering the market with different battery configurations, such as solid-state designs. Some believe that pumped water storage or compressed air can be used more widely to store energy. The European Union is pushing the use of hydrogen to store and produce electricity.

Others, meanwhile, are focusing on carbon capture technology to make gas and coal-fired power plants emission-free, which would reduce the need for energy storage.

CEO Mateo Jaramillo gestures near the first scale prototypes of Form Energy’s iron-air battery as William Woodford, chief technology officer, looks on.

Form Energy’s iron-air battery breathes oxygen and converts iron to rust, then transforms rust to iron and exhales oxygen, charging and discharging the battery in the process.

“There is a Cambrian explosion of new storage technologies and in a Darwinian sense not all of them are going to survive. But the price is huge for both investors and society, ”says Ramez Naam, a clean energy investor who is not involved in Form Energy.

Previous large-scale efforts to develop better batteries have gone from hope and hype to bankruptcy. But since Form’s inception in 2017, it has sparked speculation and intrigue within the industry due to the track record of its founders. They include Mr. Jaramillo and Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-founded A123 Systems Inc., a lithium battery pioneer.

Mr. Jaramillo earned degrees in economics and a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School before embarking on a career in developing new batteries. After more than seven years at Tesla, he left in 2016 to pursue what he called “The Next Thing” on his LinkedIn page. He didn’t provide any details, but wanted to build a cheap battery for the grid. He was about to sign a finance sheet for a new business when Mr. Chiang called him.

Demand for lithium is expected to exceed global supply as consumers turn to battery-powered vehicles. With China currently the leader in processing vital raw materials, the US government is seeking to boost domestic production. Photographic illustration: Carlos Waters / WSJ

Mr. Chiang arrived at MIT as an undergraduate student and joined the faculty less than a decade later. He started working on a long-life battery in 2012 as part of a collaboration with the Energy Department. In 2017 he was also working on long-life batteries and he and Mr. Jaramillo decided to create Form Energy together.

They recruited other veterans of the battery industry. “The founding team has 100 years of experience in the drum business,” says Chiang. “We are alumni of a generation of bankrupt battery companies that want more. “

In early 2018, they started small-scale testing, the doctorate. science version of the potato battery materials from a college science fair, using small pieces of metal wrapped in hardware clamps at the bottom of translucent measuring cups. Form tested different configurations: sulfur-iron, sulfur-air, sulfur-manganese and iron-air. At the end of the year, iron-air looked the most promising.

In 2020, as work progressed rapidly, Form took a hiatus. He needed a critical battery component called a cathode that was waterproof but breathed oxygen, like a Gore-Tex jacket. Arizona battery company NantEnergy Inc. had spent a decade building such a membrane for a zinc-air battery. Owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire biotech entrepreneur who owns the Los Angeles Times, went out of business last year to focus on other investments.

Form purchased its patents as well as its inventory of thousands of cathodes, which are in cardboard boxes in a corner of the company building. “Having this part nailed down allowed us to step on the accelerator,” Jaramillo said.

At the end of last summer, Form built a one-meter-high (about 3.3 feet high) battery that she called Slim Jim because it was the dimensions of a trash can of the same name. Earlier this year, she built Big Jim, a full-scale, one-by-one-meter battery cell. If it works as expected, 20 of these cells will be grouped into a battery. Thousands of these batteries will be chained together, filling entire warehouses and storing weeks of electricity. It may take days to fully charge these battery systems, but the batteries can discharge electricity for 150 hours at a stretch.

In 2023, Form plans to deploy a one-megawatt battery capable of continuously discharging for more than six days and says it is in talks with several utilities about deploying batteries.

Mr Chiang, who is the company’s scientific director, said the challenge was figuring out how to make a battery using iron, air, and a water-based electrolyte.

“Chefs will tell you that it’s harder to make a great dish with common ingredients,” he said.

Form Energy aims to have its iron-air batteries capable of affordable, long-lasting energy storage by 2025.

Write to Russell Gold at [email protected]

Corrections and amplifications
Form Energy recently launched a $ 200 million funding round led by ArcelorMittal SA. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the funding cycle was already over. (Corrected July 22)

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