Bill Gates Backs Renewable Battery Startup

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Bill Gates did not become the world's richest man by making foolish investments. Now Gates and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Tao Invest, Kleiner Perkins and Foundation Capital among others, are betting that the Aquion battery, invented by Jay Whitacre of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has a high-tech future. The Aquion battery costs the same as a lead-acid battery, but lasts twice as long.

Aquion Energy was founded in 2007. Kleiner Perkins, the first firm to invest in Aquion Energy, partner emeritus Ray Lane said, "We are expecting Aquion Energy's commercial launch in 2014 to be disruptive to the world of stationary energy storage. It is a testimony to Aquion's team and innovative technology that it has been able to attract these high-quality investors. The company is well positioned for impressive growth in the burgeoning global market for energy storage."

Aquion Energy, flush with $55 million from Gates and other venture capitalists, has taken over a disused factory near Pittsburgh, where Sony TVs were once made, to begin production of the battery, with full-scale production slated to begin later this year. The factory is supposed to start shipping products to early customers by June and eventually expects to create 400 jobs by the end of 2015.

The environmentally friendly battery, unlike those utilizing lead, is made of inexpensive materials including manganese oxide and water. While it functions similar to a lithium-ion battery, the Aquion battery uses sodium ions instead of lithium ones, which makes it possible to use a salt water electrolyte instead of the more expensive and flammable electrolytes used in traditional lithium-ion batteries. The battery couples a carbon anode with a sodium-based cathode, and a water-based electrolyte shifts the ions between the two electrodes during charging and discharging.

The Aquion Energy battery's design is modular, allowing the batteries can be scaled up and down depending on how much storage is needed, with the intended clientele being power grid operators and utilities seeking for low cost and easy-to-deploy batteries to offer grid services or for coupling with renewable power farms.

For storing large amounts of power from the grid, success is "all about cost," Whitacre says. In the future, Aquion Energy is to partner with major power giants like Siemens, who in Oct. 2013 purchased a shipment of Aquion Energy grid batteries to test with Siemen's in-house power inverter technology. Aquion Energy hopes that if Siemens likes their battery technology and it performs as expected, Siemens could eventually bundle the batteries with its power grid infrastructure and sell it to customers like solar farm developers.


Aquion Energy's CEO Scott Pearson said that in several years when the battery has been manufactured at a commercial scale, prices could drop to $300 per kilowatt hour, roughly a third of the cost of some of the more expensive lithium ion battery grid products currently on the market, adding that even now at the pilot scale that its batteries are "not radically above that" $300 per kwh level.

A low cost and easily installed grid energy storage option could level the playing field for renewable energy in its struggle against more traditional hydrocarbon-fired thermal power plants. The next several years will see solar and wind farms constructed at a record pace worldwide, opening up tremendous market opportunities for reliable and low cost batteries for use in such power applications as renewable energy integration, power grid load shifting and ancillary services like frequency regulation.

Not that Aquion Energy has the field to itself, as it will be competing with a number of companies, including GE and Fluidic Energy, which are also manufacturing innovative batteries for connection to the grid.

Gates as a techie has clearly done his homework, and is betting on Aquion Energy. It will be interesting to see if his buddy Warren Buffett does as well.

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Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 02, 2014, at 12:08 PM, Pallas89 wrote:

    Bill Gates also recommends more nuclear reactors. Remove choice power from Bill Gates. It's time for guillotines again, long long passed time. Study Fukushima by studying Chernobyl, see the documentary "Chernobyl Heart" and remember that the Chernobyl corium, was one, not three as at Fukushima, and it only fissioned open-air for seven days, not three years as with Fukushima. End Gates.

  • Report this Comment On February 02, 2014, at 3:44 PM, MaxxTheKatt wrote:

    I've said it before so let me say it again. "Who ever comes up with battery technology that will enable a car to run 500 plus miles on one 10 minute charge, cell phones that operate 90 days or longer on one one minute charge etc., will rule the world and be the wealthiest people on this planet. And it's coming!

  • Report this Comment On February 02, 2014, at 7:13 PM, nomadd22 wrote:

    How exactly is $300 a kilowatt hour the same as lead acid when they can be had for $60 a kilowatt hour?

  • Report this Comment On February 02, 2014, at 11:38 PM, emailnodata wrote:

    People who throw out the word "disruptive" are so full of ..... garbage.Do you not have a freaking mind of your own rather than spitting out the buzzword of the day???

    Oh, here, an old-time one from the HR world

    "must be a SELF-STARTER"

    definition of self-starter:

    male: yanks his own crank

    female: pushes her own buttons

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 11:56 AM, atkinskd wrote:

    Over the course of the last 60 years Clean Nuclear was developed, classified and kept secret. Thor Energy is looking into what amounts to a Mr Fusion car. LFTR can recycle the Plutonium Americium, and other radioactive components into power. Before bashing Anyone - Let alone Bill Gates - do some research, The United Arab Emirates are breaking ground on their 3 such system as we speak. When the Oil Czars endorse it, there's a good reason why. The Best reason is that LFTR systems are FAIL SAFE. They use Physics, not elaborate controls to keep things from getting out of hand. 3-Mile, Chernobyl and Fukushima would NEVER have happened - the reaction is non-fissionable. Our Industrial and Military complexes are more than happy for Nuclear to generate a negative sentiment while they profit mightily on the concerns and fears of the average uninformed citizen. The greatest hurdle I see for Nuclear adoption is the Coal to Thorium ratio is 300,000:1. That's ALOT of jobs to reassign.

    On the topic of this battery: a comparison to Cellstrom's Vanadium Redox Cell cubes would be handy. It's interesting that the further we press into technology the more we adopt and adapt the environment around us.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 2:34 PM, DickHamilton wrote:

    Fool, there's nothing here about the storage capacity of this battery, compared with either lead-acid or lithium. Remiss of you, or even lame.

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