Sodium battery startup Aquion Energy is trying to cross the chasm this year. Founded in 2007, the power grid battery maker is looking to finally commercialize its battery in 2014, and to get it there on Wednesday it announced that it’s raised another $20 million from investors like Bill Gates, Tao Invest, Kleiner Perkins, Foundation Capital and others.
The latest funding was an extension of a $35 million round announced back in the spring of 2013. Aquion has been building out a factory — to the tune of $75 million to $80 million — in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. That factory is supposed to start shipping products to early customers in the first half of this year and eventually create 400 jobs by the end of 2015.
The tech behind Aquion’s battery was developed out of Carnegie Mellon University by founder and chief technology officer Jay Whitacre. The battery uses basic materials like sodium and water (which are cheap and abundant), and the design is meant to be modular so the batteries can be scaled up and down depending on how much storage is needed. Intended customers are power grid operators and utilities who are looking for low cost and easy-to-deploy batteries to offer grid services or couple with clean power farms.
The battery pairs a carbon anode with a sodium-based cathode, and a water-based electrolyte shuttles ions between the two electrodes during charging and discharging. Many batteries have solvent-based electrolytes.
Aquion has been looking to partner with the big power giants like Siemens. Siemens has already purchased a shipment of Aquions grid batteries and it has been testing those batteries with Siemen’s own power inverter technology. The idea is if Siemens likes the tech — and it works as advertised — Siemens could eventually bundle the batteries with its power grid infrastructure and sell it to customers like solar farm developers.
Kleiner Perkins’ David Wells played a key role in helping incubate the Aquion technology. Whitacre and Wells started talking in late 2007 and a year later Kleiner sponsored an incubator at Carnegie Mellon for Whitacre to develop the tech. Following that, Whitacre spun off the venture and began to work on commercializing the battery. In the funding news on Wednesday, Kleiner’s former partner Ray Lane is quoted.
Bill Gates, surprisingly, has taken an interest in backing battery startups. He’s also invested in Ambri (formerly called Liquid Metal Battery), which like Aquion is building a grid battery and looking to begin commercial production shortly. Gates has backed at least 5 battery startups, according to a talk he gave back in 2010.