Reading time ( words)
A new era of energy provided by renewables may be close at hand, thanks to research begun at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Innovation Hub led by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, and continued at spinoff company Form Energy.
The challenge JCESR addressed is long duration storage — stabilizing a renewable grid against several consecutive days of calm or overcast days when wind and solar generation is absent or severely limited. Today’s lithium-ion batteries can discharge at full power for 4-6 hours, enough to stabilize against most intra-day variations due to passing clouds or fluctuating winds, or to extend solar electricity a few hours past sunset to serve the evening demand peak. A full day or consecutive days of windless or overcast weather is stabilized by natural gas peaker plants that can run indefinitely as long as they are supplied with fuel. The downside of this solution is the carbon dioxide that gas peaker plants emit, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that accelerate harmful climate change. In the net-zero carbon emissions world that suppresses climate change, these emissions must be eliminated or captured and sequestered away from the atmosphere.
At JCESR, scientists from 18 universities, companies and laboratories seek to find battery chemistries that can solve energy storage problems beyond the reach of today’s batteries. The challenge of creating a battery that can cost-effectively provide days of storage instead of hours was right up their alley.
“The objective was to create a battery to back up wind and solar generation on consecutive overcast or calm days and to do so with a commercially viable solution,” said Yet-Ming Chiang, a JCESR member, co-founder of Form Energy, and professor of materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “The long-duration battery has to compete with gas peaker plants on cost.”
JCESR solved the problem by addressing both the cost of the energy storing materials and the design of the battery, since both contribute to the cost of the final battery. Analysis by the JCESR team showed that for multi-day storage, the entire battery must have a cost less than that of the energy-storing electrodes alone in batteries such as today’s lithium ion. Therefore, the long-duration storage challenge requires new materials solutions.
“We wanted to design batteries from the most abundant, lowest-cost materials on the planet,” Chiang said. “One of our designs was a flow battery that used water-based electrolytes operating at room temperature, dissolved sulfur for one electrode, and oxygen from the air as the other. It is hard to find less expensive starting materials than these.”
Pivotal JCESR research first laid out the case for an air-breathing aqueous sulfur chemistry in long-discharge applications, comparing this kind of battery against established technologies such as lithium-ion and pumped hydroelectric storage as well as other emerging technologies such as underground compressed air storage. Later studies showed that renewable generation combined with storage, with very-low-cost new chemistries, could deliver electricity in many U.S. locations more cheaply than coal or nuclear power plants and cost-competitively with natural gas. Meanwhile, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) at DOE was also looking to explore long-duration discharge storage in its program called Duration Addition to electricitY Storage (DAYS).
Encouraged by these developments, Chiang launched a startup company based on JCESR intellectual property in 2017 with Boston-area colleagues Ted Wiley, Billy Woodford, and Marco Ferrara. Within months, the company was renamed Form Energy when it merged with a West Coast startup founded by Mateo Jaramillo, a former executive at Tesla. From the start, Form Energy was laser-focused on addressing the need for multi-day energy storage created by the growing deployment of low-cost renewable electricity, using the technical foundations laid by the work of the JCESR team to establish the nation’s longest-discharge, lowest-cost electric grid battery.
“We are thrilled that Form Energy commercialized JCESR’s innovations for long duration discharge batteries so quickly. This is a model for how the lab to market transition should work,” said George Crabtree, JCESR Director.
Worldwide, grid energy storage could be a 100-terawatt-hour proposition or more — equal to a billion Tesla Model S battery packs — to keep the country’s power grid humming uninterrupted as it taps renewable resources. Form Energy’s battery technology is being designed with rapidly scalable manufacturing in mind, and while the batteries will first be made and deployed in the United States, the technology could eventually be exported anywhere in the world.
In May 2020, just three years after its founding, Form Energy signed its first contract with Minnesota-based Great River Energy, the second-largest electric utility in the state and one of the largest generation and transmission cooperatives in the nation. This pilot project will deliver a battery system, planned for 2023, designed to discharge over 150 hours at 1 megawatt power (equaling 150 MWh of capacity), demonstrating the ability of Form Energy’s technology to cost-effectively back up wind and solar generation over multiple days.
“This project represents a bold step toward proving that an affordable, 100% renewable future is possible without sacrificing grid reliability,” said Jaramillo, who serves as the Form Energy CEO.
Another mark of the success of technology started at JCESR and continued by Form Energy is the amount of investment that the spinoff company has attracted. To date, Form Energy has secured about $120 million of private investment in addition to U.S. government support it has received through the ARPA-E DAYS project.
In addition to JCESR’s culture of thought leadership and innovation, Form Energy has also benefited from the highly skilled early career scientists and engineers who have passed through the center. Co-founder Billy Woodford, an early JCESR researcher who studied sulfur battery chemistries, is Form Energy’s chief technical officer. JCESR alumni are also represented among the scientists and engineers at the company, as well as among Form Energy’s academic partners and technical advisors.
“A company is only as good as its people,” Woodford said. “Form Energy is tackling one of the toughest problems in energy, and we’re all aware of that. My own experiences in JCESR, and that of our other Form Energy employees and partners, have informed the culture of mission-driven technical excellence, and the clear-eyed optimism, that we’ve tried to build into our core values at Form Energy.”
JCESR aims to understand the materials and phenomena of energy storage so that it can continue to push the frontier of energy storage science.
“You can never predict the future in this business. The only successful path is to continuously innovate and push the frontier,” Crabtree said. “The combination of JCESR and Form Energy resulted in a potential solution to the long duration storage challenge. This is exactly what we hoped JCESR would do — be on the edge, create and invent. This is a case where everyone wins. At this early stage, we’re the only ones with a commercial contract for a 150-hour discharge battery, to be delivered in 2023. No one else is in that space.”