To support a build-up of renewable energy, which tends to generate excess electricity at certain times of the day and generate less at others, the grid will need many batteries. While lithium ions work well for consumer electronics and even electric vehicles, battery startup EnerVenue says it developed groundbreaking technology to revolutionize stationary energy storage.
The technology itself, nickel-hydrogen batteries, is not really new. In fact, it has been used for decades in aerospace applications, to power everything from satellites to the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope. Nickel-hydrogen had been too expensive to scale for ground applications, until Stanford University professor (and now EnerVenue president) Yi Cui determined a way to adapt materials and cut costs.
Nickel-hydrogen has a number of key benefits over lithium-ion, according to EnerVenue: it can withstand super high and super low temperatures (so you don’t need air conditioners or thermal management systems); requires little or no maintenance; and it has a much longer lifespan.
The technology has caught the attention of two giants in the oil and gas industry, the energy infrastructure company Schlumberger and the venture capital division of Saudi Aramco, who together with Stanford University have raised $ 100 million in funding from Series A. The investment comes about a year after EnerVenue raised a $ 12 million seed. The company plans to use the funds to scale its nickel-hydrogen battery production, including a Gigafactory in the US, and has signed a manufacturing and distribution agreement with Schlumberger for international markets.
“I spent almost three and a half years before EnerVenue looking for a battery storage technology that I thought could compete with lithium-ion,” CEO Jorg Heinemann told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “Basically, I had given up.” He then met with Cui, who through his research had managed to reduce the cost from around $ 20,000 per kilowatt hour to $ 100 per kilowatt hour within line of sight, a staggering decrease that puts him on par with technology. of energy storage existing today. .
Think of a nickel-hydrogen battery as a kind of battery-fuel cell hybrid. It is charged by accumulating hydrogen inside a pressure vessel, and when it is discharged, that hydrogen is reabsorbed into water, Heinemann explained. One of the key differences between batteries in space and the one EnerVenue is developing on Earth is the materials. Nickel-hydrogen batteries in orbit use a platinum electrode, which according to Heinemann represents up to 70% of the cost of the battery. Legacy technology also uses a high-cost ceramic spacer. EnerVenue’s key innovation is finding new, low-cost, and abundant materials on Earth (albeit the exact materials they’re not sharing).
Heinemann also hinted that an advanced team within the company is working on a separate technological breakthrough that could further reduce cost, to the range of around $ 30 per kilowatt hour or less.
Those are not the only benefits. EnerVenue batteries can be charged and discharged at different speeds depending on the customer’s needs. It can go from a 10-minute charge or discharge to a 10-20 hour charge-discharge cycle, although the company is optimizing for a charge of approximately 2 hours and a discharge of 4 to 8 hours. EnerVenue batteries are also designed for 30,000 cycles without experiencing a decrease in performance.
“As renewables get cheaper and cheaper, there are many hours of the day where you have, say, a 1-4 hour window of almost free energy that can be used to charge for something, and then you have to dispatch it. . fast or slow depending on when the network needs it, ”he said. “And our drums do it really well.”
It is noteworthy that this round was funded by two companies that rank high in the oil and gas industry. “I think almost 100% of the oil and gas industry is now turning to renewables in a huge way,” Heinemann added. “Everyone sees the future as the energy mix is changing. We are going to be 75% renewable by mid-century, most believe it will happen faster, and that is based on studies that the oil and gas industry did. They see that and they know they need a new play. “
Don’t expect nickel hydrogen to start showing up on your iPhone anytime soon. The technology is big and heavy, even scaled down as much as possible, a nickel-hydrogen battery is still the size of a two-liter bottle of water, so lithium ion will definitely continue to play an important role in the future.
Stationary energy storage may have a different future. EnerVenue is currently in “last stage” discussions on the site and is partnering with a US factory to produce up to one gigawatt-hour of batteries a year, with the goal of eventually scaling even beyond that. Heinemann estimates that the cap-ex of tools per megawatt hour should be only 20% that of lithium-ion. As part of the partnership with Schlumberger, the infrastructure company will also manufacture batteries separately and sell them in Europe and the Middle East.
“It is a technology that works today,” Heinemann said. “We are not waiting for a technological breakthrough, there is no scientific project in our future that we have to achieve to prove something. We know it works. “