Battery innovation is alive and well in the U.S.

Envia's battery factory

Battery giants in Japan and Korea have long dominated the world’s battery technology, and still do when it comes to small format batteries for laptops and consumer electronics. But at the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E event this week, a dozen or so battery companies and research labs showed off their innovations for batteries for electric vehicles and the power grid, signalling how battery innovation, at least at the prototype level, is alive and well in the U.S. and could even lead the next-generation of transportation and grid tech.

In Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s speech on Tuesday, he said that battery innovation in the U.S. over the past three or four years has been “fantastic.” In numerous interviews with the CEOs of these battery companies at ARPA-E, executives referred to the emergence of new energy storage tech for the grid and EVs as a new boom.

In Chu’s speech he referenced a startup called Vorbeck Materials, which is working with Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL) and Princeton University, to develop next-gen lithium batteries using graphene. In a speech by former Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, Scott took the opportunity to talk about Fluidic Energy, an energy storage company in Phoenix, Arizona, that’s making rechargeable metal air batteries, and on which Scott is on the Board.

Silicon Valley battery maker Envia Systems made news at ARPA-E this week thanks to its breakthrough that it can build a high energy-dense battery that could create a 300-mile range electric car and could cost around $25,000 to $30,000. Envia is backed by venture capitalists, General Motors, and the Department of Energy. “There are three countries in the race for batteries for electric vehicles: Japan, Korea and the U.S.,” said Atul Kapadia, CEO of Envia Systems to me in an interview at ARPA-E. Envia is looking to partner with global battery manufacturers to license it’s tech or establish joint ventures.

Eos Energy Storage, a startup based in New Jersey, is building a low cost grid battery using air and zinc and is shooting to commercialize its battery in two years at a cost of $160 per kWh. Eos Energy Storage President Steve Hellman told me in an interview that he thought the U.S. was leading in terms of grid battery innovation, and that he thought other countries would be hard pressed to recreate the ARPA-E event, and have it be chock full of grid battery innovation.

Phil Giudice, CEO of Liquid Metal Battery — a startup building a sodium battery and backed by Bill Gates — told me he also thought the U.S. was dominating the grid battery space, and that there has been “10-fold more activity” in the U.S. compared to other countries in terms of grid battery innovation and investmtent. Liquid Metal Battery is looking to continue development on its battery, which sandwiches molten salt between two layers of liquid metal, this year.

Other energy storage companies I chatted with at ARPA-E include Pellion, which is developing magnesium battery tech, Recapping, which is developing high energy density capacitors, PolyPlus, which has an air and liquid battery, FlexEl, which makes flexible batteries, and Prieto Battery, which is developing a next-gen lithium ion battery. Government players like the Army, and corporations like Johnson Controls are also developing home-grown energy storage tech.

However, the way it works with early stage scientific innovation is that not many of the companies will likely be home runs. Bill Gates, in a speech on Tuesday, noted that the failure rate of these battery projects would probably be 90 percent, which is why the world needs to try thousands of these ideas.

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