Startups claim breakthroughs in long-term batteries

A four-year-old startup says it used iron, one of the most common elements on the planet, to make a cheap battery that could discharge electricity for several days.

Form Energy Inc.’s batteries are too heavy for electric vehicles. However, it is said to be able to solve one of the most elusive problems facing renewable energies. It is cheap to store large amounts of electricity in the power grid when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.

The work of the company in Somerville, Massachusetts has long been wrapped in non-disclosure agreements and non-disclosure agreements. Recently, sharing progress with The Wall Street Journal and telling regulators and utilities that if everything goes according to plan, iron-air batteries will be able to store electricity for a long time at an affordable price by 2025. He said he wanted to make him aware of that.

Microsoft Corp is the supporter. Co-founders of Bill Gates and Inc. Includes Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a climate investment fund funded by Jeff Bezos, the founder of. Form recently launched a $ 200 million round of funding, led by a strategic investment from steel giant ArcelorMittal. SA,

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One of the world’s leading iron ore producers.

Mateo Jaramiro, CEO of Tesla, who developed and worked for Tesla’s power wall batteries, said Foam will soon produce “the kind of battery needed to completely dispose of thermal assets such as coal and natural gas.” He said he was preparing to start. In some of its early automotive powertrains.

On a recent tour of the foam windowless laboratory, Jaramiro gestured to a barrel filled with low-cost iron pellets as an important advantage in the rapidly evolving battery space. Its prototype battery, called the Big Jim, is filled with 18,000 pebble-sized gray iron pieces, abundant, non-toxic and non-flammable minerals.

According to analysts, for lithium-ion battery cells, electric vehicle flagship products, and today’s grid-scale batteries, the nickel, cobalt, lithium, and manganese minerals currently in use start at $ 50 per kilowatt hour of storage. It costs $ 80.

Foam believes that iron will be used to spend less than $ 6 per kilowatt hour of storage on the material in each cell. Packaging the cells together in a full battery system raises the price to less than $ 20 per kilowatt hour. This is the level at which scholars say that renewable energy and storage could completely replace traditional fossil fuel-burning power plants.

Batteries that can discharge electricity cheaply for days have been the holy grail of the energy industry because of the problems it solves and the potential markets it creates.

Regulators and utilities are under pressure to supply affordable, reliable, carbon-free electricity as countries around the world seek to reduce climate change-related greenhouse gas emissions. It is increasing. Most power generation supplies two of the three. A long battery may allow renewable energies (wind and solar) to supply all three.

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The Byden administration is promoting a carbon-free power grid in the United States by 2035, and some states and utilities have similar promises. It is widely agreed that 80% of electricity can be generated by combining wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear power with short-term lithium-ion batteries. The last 20% will require some kind of storage for a few days.

“The first 80% know the technology path and are already cost-competitive,” said Jeremiah Baumann, Deputy Chief of the Department of Energy. “We have a good understanding of the technology of the final product. The real question is which technology will reduce costs and enter the market.”

Form batteries compete with many other approaches that are becoming crowded spaces. Many start-ups are competing to develop more sophisticated and cost-effective energy storage technologies.

Some companies are heading to the market with a variety of battery configurations, including solid-state designs. Some believe that pumped water or compressed air can be used more widely to store energy. The European Union is promoting the use of hydrogen to store and generate electricity.

Meanwhile, some companies are focusing on carbon capture technology to eliminate emissions in gas-fired and coal-fired power plants. This reduces the need to store energy.

CEO Mateo Jaramillo makes a gesture near an early reduced prototype of Form Energy’s iron-air battery under the watchful eye of Chief Technology Officer William Woodford.

Form Energy’s iron-air battery draws in oxygen to convert iron into rust, then returns the rust to iron, expels oxygen, and in the process charges and discharges the battery.

“There is a Cambrian explosion of new storage technology, and in Darwin’s sense, not all of them survive, but the award is huge for both investors and society,” said Form Energy. Not a clean energy investor, Rameznam, said.

The attention-grabbing efforts to develop better batteries have been arcing from hope and hype to bankruptcy. However, since Form was created in 2017, its founder’s track record has led to speculation and conspiracy within the industry. Among them is A123 Systems Inc, a pioneer of lithium batteries. Includes Jaramillo and Professor Yet-Ming Chiang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-founded the.

Jaramillo earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in economics from Yale Divinity School before turning to the development of new batteries. After spending more than seven years in Tesla, he left in 2016 to pursue what he calls the “next” on his LinkedIn page. He didn’t provide the details, but he wanted to make a cheap battery for the grid. When Mr Chen called him, he was about to sign a funding sheet for the new company.

Demand for lithium is expected to outpace global supply as consumers switch to battery-powered vehicles. Currently, China is leading the processing of important raw materials, and the US government is aiming to expand domestic production. Photo Illustration: Carlos Waters / WSJ

Mr. Chen arrived at MIT as an undergraduate and joined the faculty within less than 10 years. He started developing long-term batteries in 2012 as part of a collaboration with the Department of Energy. In 2017, he was also working on a long battery, and he and Jaramillo decided to create Form Energy together.

They have hired other battery industry veterans. “The founding team has 100 years of battery experience,” says Chiang. “We are graduates of a generation of failed battery companies, and everyone is back in search of more.”

In early 2018, they started a small test, PhD. A material scientist version of a potato battery at a junior high school science fair, using a small piece of metal wrapped in a hardware store hose clamp at the bottom of a translucent measuring cup. Various forms tested: Sulfur-Iron, Sulfur-Air, Sulfur-Manganese, and Iron-Air. By the end of the year, iron air looked the most promising.

In 2020, Form took a break due to the rapid progress of work. Like the Gore-Tex jacket, it required an important battery component called the cathode, which is impermeable to oxygen but absorbs oxygen. Nant Energy Inc, a battery company in Arizona. Has spent 10 years manufacturing such membranes for zinc-air batteries. Patrick Soon-Shion, the owner of the Los Angeles Times, a billionaire biotechnology entrepreneur, closed last year to focus on other investments.

Form purchased the company’s patents and an inventory of thousands of cathodes in cardboard boxes in the corners of the company’s buildings. “By nailing this piece, I was able to step on the accelerator,” said Jaramillo.

At the end of last summer, Form produced a 1-meter-high battery called Slim Jim because it had the dimensions of a trash can of the same name. Earlier this year, we built the Big Gym, a full-fledged 1m x 1m battery cell. If it works as expected, 20 of these cells will be grouped into the battery. Thousands of these batteries are spliced ​​together to fill the entire warehouse and store weeks of electricity. It can take several days to fully charge these battery systems, but the batteries can be discharged at once for 150 hours.

In 2023, Form says it plans to deploy a 1-megawatt battery that can be discharged continuously for more than 6 days and is discussing battery deployment with several utilities.

Chen, the company’s chief scientific officer, said the challenge was to find a way to make batteries using iron, air, and water-based electrolytes.

“The chef will say it’s difficult to make a good dish using common ingredients,” he said.

Form Energy aims to be an iron-air battery that can store electricity for a long period of time at an affordable price by 2025.

Write to Russell Gold (

Correction and amplification
Form Energy recently launched a $ 200 million funding round led by Arcelor Mittal SA. Earlier versions of this article mistakenly stated that the funding round had already ended. (Corrected on July 22)

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Startups claim breakthroughs in long-term batteries

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