“Boring Scales” : More on Energy Storage Breakthrough

July 23, 2021

Canary Media:

Form Energy finally lifted the veil of secrecy over its technology that purports to store clean electricity for days on end.

The startup revealed Thursday that it is building iron-air batteries, a technology that has been studied for decades but never commercialized for grid storage. The announcement coincided with a profile in the Wall Street Journal and a $200 million Series D raise led by global steel and mining giant ArcelorMittal.

“We felt that we had made enough progress that it was relevant to talk about,” Form CEO Mateo Jaramillo told Canary Media Thursday.

The company had filed for the patents it needed to secure its intellectual property, he added. And when news broke that a steel company, which sources massive amounts of iron, was taking a stake in Form, some people probably could have connected the dots.

The revelation ended a period of speculation about Form, launched as a sort of energy storage supergroup in 2017. Jaramillo built Tesla’s energy storage business before joining forces with MIT battery expert Yet-Ming Chiang. Along with co-founders Billy Woodford, Ted Wiley, and Marco Ferrara, they systematically examined every material that stores electricity to see if it could reach very low costs for very long durations. 

Lithium-ion batteries cost-effectively store power for several hours today, making them useful for shifting solar production into the evening hours. Other startupsliberally claim the long-duration moniker for durations of six hours, eight hours, 12 hours, or whatever else they offer. 

Form wants to store clean power and deliver it over 100 hours or more, which would constitute a whole new type of power plant. Jaramillo describes it as competing with gas plants, not batteries.

After all the buildup, iron isn’t the most dramatic substance to reveal. But that’s kind of the point, Jaramillo said.

“Boring is what scales,” he explained. “We can’t be infatuated with exotic things for [their own sake]. We can only be concerned with and working on relevant technologies with relevant timeframes.”

Now the question is whether Form’s iron-air battery can succeed where similar efforts have failed to achieve the stunning low costs necessary to deliver that vision. And will there be a market for it, if that happens?

The “iron-air” system stores energy via “reversible rusting.” In discharge mode, the battery pulls in oxygen from the air to make the iron rusty. Running the process in reverse releases oxygen and returns the iron to its pre-rusty state, while charging the system. 

The Department of Energy funded research on this concept by Westinghouse in the 1970s, Jaramillo said. But it didn’t work for commercial needs at the time. Form looked at the challenge afresh in its search for cheap storage materials.

That long history raises the question of why nobody figured out how to make it work after all those years, a charge that applies to long-simmering rival technologies like vanadium flow batteries. 

But Jaramillo frames this scientific pedigree as a positive.

“If we had invented the chemistry itself from scratch, that’s a much longer timeline,” he said. “What we’re doing is optimizing a technology that had never been commercialized before.”

Form got a boost in that effort a year ago when it bought all the patents and assets of defunct zinc-air battery company Fluidic Energy. Billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiongbought that company in 2018, renamed it NantEnergy, and then quietly shut it down.

The zinc-air battery was deployed by the thousands, largely in remote, solar-powered microgrids around the world. But its operating profile didn’t find a niche in the broader storage market, and not even $220 million raised or a billionaire’s backing could save it. 

That doesn’t sound like the most auspicious place to find a breakthrough technology. But among the scraps, Form found what Jaramillo called “the world’s best air cathode,” honed by Fluidic scientists over a decade. Form no longer needed to wait for its internal effort to reinvent the wheel; it could merge the well-honed cathode with its iron anode.

“It saved us a chunk of time and really reduced the risk,” he said.

Some observers question whether the business model fits the current market.

But Form isn’t planning for today’s market. It’s planning for a grid state where ample renewable generation regularly creates huge surpluses and long droughts of energy. A 100-hour battery can arbitrage between the two. 

That’s the kind of market Jaramillo insists is materializing faster than many people expect. He has a stable of highly-trained MIT energy modelers to support that claim. It’s too early to know if their prognostications are correct, but Form has copious investor dollars to spend proving the thesis.


4 Responses to ““Boring Scales” : More on Energy Storage Breakthrough”

  1. grindupbaker Says:

    I listened to a talk about a year ago by that MIT bloke Yet-Ming Chiang that it mentions there. I found it interesting. It’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E76q-9q7ZDg

  2. Best of luck to them, but I’ve never seen a more over hyped field than new battery designs.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The hype for new ventures is always over the top. In the 1980s and 1990s my husband and I were both working for startups, and we were very aware of what new tech was being hyped for potential investors (via friends and family of ourselves and coworkers), and how they were going to save the world. The same for biogenetic startups. (Think of Shark Tank but for tens or hundreds of millions.)

      The Internet makes us more aware of the sales pitches of these technologies.

      Bear in mind that a lot of tech companies fail for reasons other than the viability of the tech. (Clingy founders not letting the company grow in a healthy way, competitors’ founders playing golf with the venture capitalist, Giant Company hinting that they’re developing similar technology, loss of key personnel and developers for any reason.)

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