US grid-scale battery start-up looks to Australia for R&D, manufacturing | RenewEconomy

US grid-scale battery start-up looks to Australia for R&D, manufacturing

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US liquid metal battery storage start-up in talks to set up Australian R&D team, and possibly a manufacturing hub too.

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The US company behind a promising grid-scale energy storage technology known as liquid metal batteries is looking to set up a collaborative research base in Australia, and possibly a manufacturing hub, as it begins to test its technology at scale.

The company – which was originally called Liquid Metal Batteries, after the technology, but is now called Ambri – was spun out of the research of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Donald Sadoway, who developed the liquid metal chemistry with his team at MIT.

According to Fortune, Ambri has thus far raised $50 million in equity, including from Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates, oil company Total TOT 0.68% , Swiss insurance company Building Insurance Bern (GVB), and KLP Enterprises, the family office of Karen Pritzker (Pritzker is the heir to the Hyatt hotel chain and industrial conglomerate Marmon).

The batteries, which comprise three self-segregating layers – low density liquid metal on top, high density metal on the bottom, and in the middle molten salt – have yet to be tested at a utility-scale.

They have, however, been tested extensively at a cell and multiple-cell level and found to be highly conductive, fast-responding and long lasting, with very little capacity fade over time, putting them at an advantage over other popular battery chemistries, particularly for grid applications.

There is one “hero cell” at MIT, according to Sadoway, that has been going for two years, and gone through more than 1400 cycles with zero capacity fade.

Essentially, he says, the “upper metal and lower metal (in the batteries) are the electrodes, and the salt is the electrolytes. (These allow) the battery (to) respond very quickly; it can deliver surges and even take surges from the grid.”

MIT Professor Donald Sadoway. Source: MIT News

Sadoway is in Sydney this week, both to pursue plans to establish a collaborative R&D base at the University of Newcastle and to meet with ARENA.

The addition of a team in Newcastle, he says, would enhance MIT’s achievements, which he believes allow plenty of room for further innovation.

“What I did was not so much the invention of a battery, but the invention of a battery field,” Sadoway, told RE in an interview on Tuesday. “There are so many different metals and so many different salts, so having a team here would enhance that.”

Sadoway also sees potential for a manufacturing hub in Australia, which – when the batteries are competitive enough, perhaps in three years – can cater to the Australian and New Zealand markets for grid-scale battery storage. (“They’re frightfully heavy, you probably don’t want to be shipping them long distances.”)

But unlike some others in the burgeoning and highly competitive stationary battery storage industry, he is careful not to over-promise and under-deliver.

It is only now – 10 years after first developing the LMB chemistry, and six years after forming a company to commercialise it – that he believes the technology is ready to be tested at a grid scale.

“This is a really tough game, it’s one strike and you’re out,” Sadoway told RE, and Ambri is doing all it can not to go that way.

After being pushed back late last year, development of the first grid-scale LMB prototype, probably 100kWh, is expected to be built in “about a year’s time,” and will be tested at a US army base, possibly Cape Cod, specifically chosen for its proximity to Ambri HQ in Boston.

The first commercial roll-out of the technology is set to be on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, which currently uses diesel generation to back-up its solar PV. “With out battery, their cots of electricity would fall to 27c/kWh on day one,” Sadoway told RE.

That said, Sadoway believes that there are no current grid-scale battery storage products that are “economic” to deploy, as yet, and for that matter, no residential batteries, if you remove subsidies and other incentives. His own technology, Sadoway predicts, will be cost competitive in around three years’ time.

“(Our) competitors at the moment are natural gas and diesel,” Sadoway told RE. “The only people using batteries are people induced to do so by incentives.”

“In the energy sector, you’re competing against hydrocarbons, and they’re deeply entrenched and heavily subsidized and tenacious,” he said in a separate interview, earlier this year, with MIT News.

Ambri System_Dec2015

But this meeting of the old entrenched generators and the new rise of renewable energy sources like solar and wind are what makes Australia – and “every market,” according to Sadoway – well suited to grid-scale battery storage.

“It’s valuable for the stabilisation of the present day centralised grid, which is very rickety, really, in some cases on the verge of collapse.

“Add to the mix that there’s the environmental imperative these days, and people are moving forward at a fair pace to incorporate renewables.

“My assessment is that … I guarantee you the public is not going to pay one penny premium for unreliable power, even though it’s green. And the only way to make it reliable is to have it storage.”

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  1. Diego Matter 4 years ago

    I have been following Ambri from it’s inception until today.

    What I don’t like about them – and the reason could be Mr. Sadoway being an academic – is that they move too slowly compared to a Tesla. His team is still made up up novices – mainly PHDs that have no manufacturing prowess, and that is hindering them to enter the market.

    I think the technology is unbeatable, especially the almost nonexistent capacity fade of this kind of battery and the high surge capability.

    But not more research is needed, more deployment of this battery to slide down the learning curve is needed, meaning lots of installations in the field. I’d like to think that if they would have installed their first systems three years ago they would be unbeatable today. Now they will have to fight against lithium ion storage that will undoubtedly become cheaper in the next few years.

    I also don’t understand why they don’t plan residential storage because it is very safe.

    It’s a pity really. Just to be clear, I like that Sadoway is cautious, but one can also be too perfectionist!

    • blackandwhite 4 years ago

      I get a feeling these are not the future.

    • Steven F 4 years ago

      The reason Ambri seems to be moving slow is that they ran into a problem with seals that prevent ai from getting into the battery. They had seal failure rate higher than expected and have had to delay field testing until. Based on the article it sounds like the new seal design will be ready soon new soon. Open that happens the first batteries will be installed for field testing.

  2. Steve Fuller 4 years ago

    Mercury is the only metal that exists as a liquid at room temperature so the contents of these batteries need to be kept hot. I understand that the research phase has included identifying the metals that operate effectively in this system at relatively low temperatures but still several hundred degrees C.

    So presumably this technology will include a continuing heat source and fuel, a containment vessel that meets safety requirements and a monitoring and maintenance system to keep everything stable.

    It would be good to get an explanation about how these requirements could be satisfied and so how restricted the application of the technology might be.

    • Calamity_Jean 4 years ago

      These batteries are obviously useful only for grid-scale use. Pack many of them in a heavily-insulated room (possibly underground) to conserve the heat, and “steal” a little of the power being run in and out to maintain the temperature.

    • Steven F 4 years ago

      The batteries are heavily insulated. As a result it takes very little power to keep the battery hot. In fact it is anticipated that the normal electrical power losses during the charge and discharging cycle will produce enough heat to keep the batteries hot.

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