Startup Claims Breakthrough in Long-Duration Batteries
A four-year-old startup says it has built an inexpensive battery that can discharge power for days using one of the most common elements on Earth: iron. From a report: Form Energy’s batteries are far too heavy for electric cars. But it says they will be capable of solving one of the most elusive problems facing renewable energy: cheaply storing large amounts of electricity to power grids when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing. The work of the Somerville, Mass., company has long been shrouded in secrecy and nondisclosure agreements. It recently shared its progress with The Wall Street Journal, saying it wants to make regulators and utilities aware that if all continues to go according to plan, its iron-air batteries will be capable of affordable, long-duration power storage by 2025.

Its backers include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a climate investment fund whose investors include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Form recently initiated a $200 million funding round, led by a strategic investment from steelmaking giant ArcelorMittal one of the world’s leading iron-ore producers. Form is preparing to soon be in production of the “kind of battery you need to fully retire thermal assets like coal and natural gas” power plants, said the company’s chief executive, Mateo Jaramillo, who developed Tesla’s Powerwall battery and worked on some of its earliest automotive powertrains. On a recent tour of Form’s windowless laboratory, Mr. Jaramillo gestured to barrels filled with low-cost iron pellets as its key advantage in the rapidly evolving battery space. Its prototype battery, nicknamed Big Jim, is filled with 18,000 pebble-size gray pieces of iron, an abundant, nontoxic and nonflammable mineral.

For a lithium-ion battery cell, the workhorse of electric vehicles and today’s grid-scale batteries, the nickel, cobalt, lithium and manganese minerals used currently cost between $50 and $80 per kilowatt-hour of storage, according to analysts. Using iron, Form believes it will spend less than $6 per kilowatt-hour of storage on materials for each cell. Packaging the cells together into a full battery system will raise the price to less than $20 per kilowatt-hour, a level at which academics have said renewables plus storage could fully replace traditional fossil-fuel-burning power plants. A battery capable of cheaply discharging power for days has been a holy grail in the energy industry, due to the problem that it solves and the potential market it creates.

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