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Fossil Fuel Busting Battery Set To Be Tested In Minnesota
This could genuinely turn the tide on oil.
Our net-zero future depends on batteries. In the next few years, these surprisingly complex energy storage devices will power everything from our cars to planes and even boats. They will store renewable energy produced on sun and windy days, enabling us to power ourselves entirely on ultra-low carbon, environmentally friendly energy. But for this clean utopia to come about, batteries have to change. Right now, they are too environmentally dubious to produce, have too many production bottlenecks, and cost far far too much. But all of that is about to change with Form Energy’s iron-air battery, and this revolutionary tech is nearly ready for testing.
You might not have heard of Form Energy, but they are a groundbreaking startup that has raised millions in backing from some of the most prestigious investors on the planet, like Bill Gates. While their battery technology isn’t suitable for EVs (yet), it is at the forefront of grid-level storage. Why? Well, they can build batteries cheaper than anyone else whilst using materials that are far more environmentally friendly and widely available.
Their battery technology is actually surprisingly simple. Iron oxide (rusted iron) powder and a water-based solution are poured into a sealed container that is connected to a hydrogen fuel cell. To charge this battery, a current is passed through the water solution. This causes the iron oxide to turn back into pure iron and release the oxygen it was bonded to. To discharge, this iron is allowed to react with the water and rust. This means that the oxygen element of the water attaches to the iron, turning it into iron oxide, and the hydrogen part of the water is released. This hydrogen then enters the fuel cell, where it reacts with the oxygen released during charging to create electricity and water. This water is then returned to the container, ready for the battery to charge again.
The hydrogen fuel cell and oxidising agent technologies used by Form Energy have been around for a while now, but Form has optimised them to work together incredibly well. The overall cycle efficiency (the percentage of energy you get back out compared to what you put in) is 75%, way higher than any other iron-air battery. Form reduced the level of self-discharging, meaning it can provide power for up to 100 hours. What’s more, the battery has a life span of 5,000 charge cycles! That is around three times longer than the longest-lived lithium-ion batteries.
Now, the primary materials used to build this battery are iron and platinum (hydrogen fuel cells can use iron or platinum). Both of these can be easily sourced from recycled materials; there are still plenty of iron and platinum mines and refineries worldwide, including in developed countries in the Americas, EU and Asia. This means that this battery doesn’t need the nickel, cobalt or other heavy metals used by lithium-ion batteries that rely on humanitarianly dubious labour in developing countries to mine and drive environmental poisoning and habitat loss. It also means that shipping costs and carbon emissions can be reduced. This means Form Energy’s battery has the potential to be the most eco-friendly energy storage technology out there.
But this simple construction and widely available materials have other benefits. Firstly, there will be very few production bottlenecks, as material supply is plentiful. This means that if Form Energy can expand its factories, it can roll out mega grid-level batteries at incredible speeds. This contrasts with lithium-ion, which is dramatically limited by material supply and complexity of production. This speed is crucial, as it can help us speed up our energy transition and save the planet.
There is another benefit, but to understand it, we need to understand one of the most significant issues with renewable energy.
Renewable energy isn’t an on-tap energy source like fossil fuels or nuclear power. Right now, with renewables only making up a portion of our energy grids, that isn’t a problem, as we can use small grid batteries and increase the output of other energy sources to infill the times when renewables supply doesn’t meet demand. But if we want to run our energy grids off 100% renewable energy, we need far, far larger grid batteries than we are currently using. If we build these vast packs with lithium-ion packs, they will be so damn expensive that they will make renewables impractical.
This means that, for renewables to truly dominate our energy grids, and finally help rid the world of fossil fuels, the cost of battery packs must fall 87% to only $20 per kWh.
Well, thanks to its simple design and easy-to-access materials, Form Energy’s grid batteries will cost $20 per kWh. In other words, this technology marks a significant milestone, as it genuinely unlocks a future in which we can rid ourselves of planet-wrecking fossil fuels.
All Form Energy has to do, is prove its technology, build a factory, and start selling.
Form Energy is well on the way with this. Earlier this year, they built their first manufacturing plant in West Virginia and secured the regulatory clearance to test a 10MW/1,000MWh demonstration-scale system at a facility in Minnesota. This demonstrator is set to be a full-scale giant battery that covers five acres of land near a 710 MW solar farm near Becker, Minnesota. It will demonstrate its ability to integrate with renewable energy and the grid, as well as prove its safety and procedures are up to par.
But as I said earlier, Form Energy can build and roll out these batteries insanely quickly. So even though the factory isn’t built yet, and this demonstrator isn’t built yet, they are on track to start commercial operations in 2024!
To save the planet, we need to adopt renewable energy and the infrastructure that supports it, like grid-level batteries, many times faster than we are today. Form Energy will enable this transition to happen as fast as possible without damaging our wallets or our precious Earth. This is yet another example of the fact that we have the technology to save the world; we just need to use it.
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