What if you could create a battery using water as the electrolyte (one of the key building blocks of batteries)? Its materials could be as cheap and plentiful as, well, water. That was the question that Stanford PhD student turned entrepreneur Colin Wessells set out to answer when he started out on his thesis four years ago.
Today Wessells is the CEO and co-founder of a half-year-old startup called Alveo Energy, which is looking to develop and commercialize a battery made out of water, Prussian blue dye — which is used to color things like blue jeans, crayons and paint — iron and copper. The battery is meant to be ultra low cost and long lasting, and if successful, could help deliver breakthrough energy storage technology for the power grid.
Start of the journey
For now, the company is just getting started. Wessells co-founder is Stanford Professor Robert Huggins, and the small team works out of office space in Palo Alto, Calif. They plan to round out the team to just four people over the next couple of months, and perhaps double that over the next three years. So, yeah, they plan to stay lean.
Alveo Energy is one of just a few early stage battery startups that’s emerged from the Valley in 2012. I came across the company last week because they managed to snag a $4 million grant from the Department of Energy’s high risk early stage program called ARPA-E. They won one of the largest grants out of the 66 projects that were funded.
Wessells, a first time CEO, called the grant “a validation of their technology,” and an incredibly important milestone for them. The company will probably bring on another investor to round out the seed round in the coming months, but the ARPA-E grant will make up most of the company’s planned seed round.
The funding environment on Sand Hill Road has been really challenged this year for cleantech companies, said Wessells. Investors that might have done a promising battery deal out of Stanford two years ago, today are being dissuaded by their limited partners to fund early stage cleantech firms. They see the risk as just too high.
And perhaps VCs are smart to be more risk averse this time around. Alveo Energy is still in the protoype and R&D phases. They’ve created version one of their prototype, and they published data on that technology about a month ago. Version two of the battery is what they’re working on now and hoping to scale up in size and performance. Currently generation two can provide battery power without degradation (batteries degrade over time) for between one and two calender years — the team hopes that the eventual commercialized battery will provide closer to five to ten years of battery life.
Power grid applications
Unlike some lithium ion batteries that are being used in the next-generation of electric cars, Alveo Energy’s batteries aren’t meant to provide intense bursts of power to move large objects. They have a lower voltage and deliver a smaller charge than typical lithium ion batteries — about one tenth the energy, one third the voltage, and one third the charge, said Wessells.
That’s because only one sixth of the ions in the Alveo batteries’ structure are electrochemically active. Alveo’s battery is made by taking Prussian blue dye and adding in some iron and copper to optimize a battery structure that can use a water-based electrolyte — the optimal structure just chemically works out that way.
Wessells says Huggins first raised the idea of using Prussian blue dye, which is electrochromic, back around the Christmas of 2009 — before that Wessells was working on trying to use lithium. The next two years were spent on devising the structure of Prussian blue dye, iron and copper. Alveo itself is a word that is related to the Latin for something like channels or honeycomb.
The structure also meant that Alveo’s batteries are relatively large and meant, mostly, to be stationary. They’ll be about three to four times bigger than a standard car battery, said Wessells, and will eventually be developed into a 1 kilowatt, 50 kilogram, prototype.
The potential low cost of such a battery is the real breakthrough for Alveo, and the reason why they’re willing to concede on voltage and charge. Wessells says that they’ll be able to make the battery for below $100 per kilowatt hour. Lead acid batteries, which are far cheaper than lithium ion batteries, are being made for around $150 to $200 per kilowatt hour. Lithium ion batteries are far, far more expensive.
Holy grail for clean power
Wessells says that such a low cost battery could be used for a variety of applications for the power grid, including providing storage for variable clean energy like solar and wind. Big battery farms could be built right onto solar and wind farms, to bank power during the night, and when the wind dies down.
A growing amount of companies, large and small, are working on this clean power problem, using both chemistry and software as a solution. One of the more well known startups is Ambri (formerly Liquid Metal Battery), which is also looking to use dirt cheap materials to make power grid batteries, and which is backed by Khosla Ventures and Bill Gates. Other startups like GELI, are looking to create a battery operating system that can better utilize batteries for the power grid.
Alveo Energy has a long road ahead of it. Even though it’s got an ambitious road map, don’t expect a commercialized version for at least three years from now, if not longer. And at that point Alveo also has a lot of options for how it can make its batteries at scale. It can raise money to just build out a factory, which is in the model of a company like A123 Systems — though, A123 Systems went bankrupt this year and is a cautionary tale. Alveo could also license, or straight out sell, its technology to one of the world’s massive battery makers. That would be a safer, less risky, way to go.
Eventually one of these startups or battery conglomerates — whether its backed by venture capitalists or not — will deliver a breakthrough in battery technology that cracks that fundamental problem with clean power. The future of making clean power low cost and mainstream, depends on it.