Gelion launches zinc bromine gel battery to take on lithium mainstays

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Sydney-based Gelion sets sights on $70bn global battery market with launch of zinc bromine gel battery technology it says will soon undercut lithium-ion on cost.

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Sydney-based energy storage start-up Gelion has officially launched onto Australia’s booming battery market, with a new take on zinc bromine chemistry it says can offer a cheaper, safer and more sustainable alternative to lithium-ion.

The company unveiled the first commercial application of its Gelion Endure battery storage platform – a battery-integrated portable, automated solar light tower – at the home of its conception, the University of Sydney, at a live demonstration on Wednesday night.

The technology was unveiled as part of a $1 million contract with the University – the company’s first such commercial deal – which starts with the installation of battery integrated solar light poles across the Sydney campus, followed by plans to add storage to the Uni’s rooftop solar systems.

And from there, the company’s plans get considerably loftier. With the help of a new $10 million fundraising round – also launched on Wednesday night – Gelion expects to be mass producing its zinc bromine gel battery technology for applications ranging from residential to grid, at a cost of below $100/kWh by the end of 2021.

“Our estimates are, that when we’re mass producing, that will be the price,” said Gelion CEO, Rob Fitzpatrick, referring to the production cost for the battery cell component, only.

“Lithium technology is significantly above that,” he added.

“We hope to generate 5MWh of testing production over next 18 months, over which time we will be proving in our semi-automated and automated manufacturing capability, and testing the use of the technology in buildings and on solar farms.

The company currently has an automated production facility it’s “working with” in Australia, and a semi-automated plant in India, about which Fitzpatrick says there will be “more to talk about” in coming weeks.

“We will be then scaling our manufacturing lines to fit our end-user markets, and producing at a commercial-scale of 100MWh and higher by the end of 2021.”

It’s a big call for what is currently a pretty small concern – the company, as noted above, was only fairly recently spun out of the University of Sydney, and notched up its first fund-raising in 2016 with a $11 million investment by UK renewables group Armstrong Energy.

(Gelion is owned by Gelion UK, a joint venture between management and Armstrong Energy, who oversee the corporate governance and funding of the business, as well as assisting in long-term strategic planning.)

But Fitzpatrick says the time and place is right to ramp up, and Gelion’s proprietary technology has plenty to offer where other battery storage chemistries – including lithium-ion – fall short.

“Australia is a fantastic place to be doing this,” he told RE in an interview on Wednesday. “The biggest challenge with this sort of technology is being 10 years ahead of the curve. This market is not that. This market is ready to go.”

As Gelion’s founding chair and “technology inventor” Thomas Maschmeyer explains, the key selling point – aside from price – will be the capabilities and characteristics of the company’s patented gel chemistry; its “re-imagining the internals” of zinc bromine flow batteries.

“One of our key philosophies is never to talk down any other product,” he starts by saying, “but flow batteries in general are just more complex, because they have moving parts.

“By replacing liquid bromine with our patented gel chemistry, we can reduce the complexity, which reduces price, reduces servicing cost, and the advantages of zinc bromine chemistry are maintained.

“So we’ve been able to overcome the disadvantages of zinc bromine by creating a fully sealed gel battery that has no moving parts, is very simple to make, and has a long lifetime,” Maschmeyer told RE.

“A remarkable feature of our patented nanostructured gel is that it can deliver a slow and steady discharge, or a fast capacative type of discharge, depending on the thickness of gel and battery architecture.

“This allows Gelion to customise batteries to target diverse markets, beginning with solar storage and expanding to large-scale renewables and beyond.

“In addition, we are able to run at reasonably high temperatures, have no need for active cooling, and the batteries are able to discharge to zero per cent and be safely stored and transported, (unlike) others, which have to be kept in a partially charged state.”

“When you include that you don’t need to have active cooling or a float charge, that adds to the benefit and detracts from the LCOE (levelised cost of energy),” he said.

Another key benefit of the zinc bromine chemistry, as we know from fellow Australian battery maker Redflow, is that it poses very little – if any – fire risk.

For those who would like to have a battery in their home, for instance, this is a pretty attractive quality.

“It can’t blow up, it cant catch fire – and if the house burns, the battery is the last thing that will burn, not the first,” says Fitzpatrick.

Indeed it is this quality of the zinc bromine chemistry – which mimics some of the attributes of fire retardants – alongside the scalability of the gel batteries, that has attracted the attention of Australia’s construction industry.

According to Fitzpatrick, Gelion is currently in “a number of advanced conversations with all of the major commercial construction companies in Australia,” but not in a position to talk about them publicly yet.

In a video on the company’s website, Gelion says it has partnered with construction companies to test the batteries inside the structure of their buildings, “so the walls can become batteries.”

“Applications will range from anything where other battery technologies are more combustive,” Fitzpatrick adds.

Beyond that, the company has ambitions in almost every sector of the burgeoning global battery storage market, which it notes is currently valued at between $60bn-$70bn.

It’s Endure batteries can be scaled up from the core cell size – which at the moment is 5Wh – to 7-25kWh for residential; 50-100kWh for commercial; and containerised at 1MWh for grid-scale applications.

“Where we’re focusing first is at the larger end,” says Fitzpatrick. “Building off the experience of working with University of Sydney … the biggest draw is coming from commercial-industrial and solar farm applications.

“The exciting thing to Gelion is that when you look at the market going forward, zinc bromine has a massive advantage in that the core materials are abundant and inexpensive,” he adds.

“This is not the case with lithium-ion, which – thanks also to the EV market – will continually attract an imbalance of demand and supply that will drive up the price.

“Which creates a very exciting market for us to go into. And that market will only grow.”

Will they be moving into the utility-scale market? “Without question,” Fitzpatrick told RE. “Grid-scale applications come in all sizes, and the ability to have stability on the grid is exactly what this sort of thing will target.”

The company is also developing its own proprietary energy management system, to manage and service the Gelion Endure batteries remotely, including the ability to “rejuvenate the electrodes,” and take the charge down to zero charge and up to 100 per cent.

Which brings us back to the Gelion Endure’s first commercial outing via the mobile lights towers at Sydney Uni.

“Having a silent, renewable powered light is really powerful,” Fitzpatrick says.

“Their safe battery technology (is) hidden in the pole structures, and that will deliver solar power all night long – it’s very exciting,” adds University of Sydney vice chancellor and principal, Dr Michael Spence.

“Then we have big plans to add Gelion storage to our rooftop solar structures, so we feel very lucky to have early access to this really breakthrough technology.”

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