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When Elon Musk’s Tesla announced that it will start building lithium ion batteries to fuel its electric cars and signed a deal with Panasonic to build a $5 billion Gigafactory, it resonated in certain circles as the ultimate challenge.
The race for energy storage is on. Tesla’s lithium ion is in the lead, but other companies think they can invent a better, cheaper battery. Not for cars but to harness renewable energy like wind and solar and make the world’s electricity infrastructure more resilient and reliable.
“If I could boost this nation’s electricity production by 40 percent without having to build one power plant, that means the unit cost of electricity is going to fall and the amount of pollution is going to fall. Who’s not going to cheer about that?” says Donald Sadoway, inventor of a liquid battery for Ambri, a four-year-old company that thinks it has a battery that will change the world.
It consists of two liquid metals and a salt solution. “It accepts electrical current from the grid, stores it and will return it back when it’s needed,” says David Bradwell, Ambri’s chief technology officer.
There are about a dozen companies that are working on different batteries, each with a unique combination of materials and components. Big-name investors are seeding the industry with big money and placing their bets on which company will come up with the winning idea. Ambri has the backing of Bill Gates and Total, a French energy company.
“The entire robotic device, it’s on the order of $10 million dollars, not a billion dollars like a lithium ion battery plant.”
Chief Scientific Advisor, Ambri
Industry experts say the right battery will revolutionize how the world uses electricity. “The technology I’d compare it most closely with is refrigeration,” said Haresh Kamath, strategic program manager for the Electric Power Research Institute. “Refrigeration revolutionized the supply chain for food. We can’t imagine our lives today without it. Storage is sort of like refrigeration for the grid. It provides a great deal of flexibility and resilience to the supply chain we’re completely reliant on for electric power.”
“We look at this as a multitrillion-dollar market annually,” said Ambri CEO Phil Giudice. “It is literally of that nature — with success.”
It’s an industry with big potential. A battery serves a simple function: it stores energy. There are plenty of batteries today that do exactly this, but they’re either too expensive or not reliable enough. “In many cases the technology is already there, but the economics or regulatory structure may not be quite suited for the use of storage on the grid,” said Kamath. “What we’ll see over the next few years — if there’s a technical benefit to energy storage, then companies will explore deploying it in a different way.”
The perfect battery could store solar and wind power as it’s made and then integrate it into the larger power grid as needed. It would be a game changer for renewable energies. Then power companies could “make wind and solar part of the base load so you can draw electricity from the sun when the sun doesn’t shine,” said Sadoway. “You can draw electricity from the wind when the wind doesn’t blow. That’s a powerful idea.”
Batteries could go in the basement of skyscrapers or provide backup power for entire neighborhoods. The biggest challenge of all: batteries so powerful and reliable, they could replace power plants.
“Energy storage can be used to reduce the total number of power plants that you have a need for on your grid,” said Kamath. “This is because you have to build power plants to satisfy the peak demand at any given time of the year.”
Here’s something you may not know about electricity: It’s made in real time. Turn on a light switch and generators are producing that electricity in response. There’s no warehouse that stores electricity. As a result, parts of the grid are built to be put in service only a few days of the year when energy use is at its peak, during the hottest days of the year, when air conditioners are blasting. Peaking turbines accommodate this demand. “Literally in America the median peaking turbine is running only 2 percent of the time,” said Giudice. “Can you imagine running a hotel you didn’t keep full except for 2 percent of the time? It’s a very expensive proposition.”
Energy storage — and perhaps the right battery — could change the existing grid. A battery could serve as an energy warehouse, storing electricity during nonpeak hours and then sending it out when people most need it. It would mean no more expensive power plants that work only during peak hours. “By eliminating the peak generation and using storage, it could ultimately save some dollars,” said Joseph Carbonara, a project manager in research and development at New York’s Con Edison.
Power companies like Con Edison are paying close attention to the new technology. It’s working with several battery companies, including Ambri, to help them test their products. But the technology isn’t quite there. It will take another five years for the batteries to be tested thoroughly enough that a utility would be amenable to incorporating it into the grid. “We worked with others that are gearing their technologies to be low cost, reliable and safe,” said Carbonara. “At this point, may the best technology win.”
One of the biggest prohibitive aspects of these batteries is cost. Sadoway says inexpensive manufacturing is key. But the territory is so new that manufacturing the battery is as experimental as the battery itself. As a result, Ambri brought in experts from Detroit’s auto industry to build robots to assemble the batteries. The project is in a prototype phase, but Sadoway believes it will give Ambri a competitive edge over other batteries, like Tesla’s lithium ion.
“The entire robotic device, it’s on the order of $10 million dollars, not a billion dollars like a lithium ion battery plant,” said Sadoway.
He envisions a business model in which manufacturing plants are built around the world, using local materials to build batteries. He believes it will be key to bringing electricity to developing countries.
“If you’ve got electricity in the developing world, what comes with electricity? Well, now you’ve got devices that can power things like water purification that can lead to things like sanitation, which means now you are leading something other than a life of mere survival,” said Sadoway
But there is still much to be done before that vision can be realized.
“Everything has to be invented,” said Sadoway. “We think it’s doable, but we’ve got to prove it.”