Waterloo companies power past Stanford, MIT and Harvard in key metric
Ahhh …. Those wily Canadians! Surpassing MIT, Stanford and Silicon Valley
Investors looking for higher returns might be wiser to look to Waterloo companies than ventures started by alumni at Stanford, MIT and Harvard.
A new report from a U.S. platform for investors and startups has found that ventures founded by Waterloo alumni produce a higher-than-expected return on investment than their counterparts at the three American institutions.
The data from AngelList Venture show Waterloo startups generate outsized ROI for their investors, with an average excess markup rate 13 per cent higher than the baseline at 12 and 36 months.
Only the University of Washington ranked higher with a rate of 21 per cent, while Brown University came in third with an 11.5 per cent excess markup rate. Two other Canadian universities made the ranking, with University of Toronto coming in at 16th and McGill University at 19th.
The platform considers an investment on its list to be marked up if it does an equity round at a higher price per share in a future fundraise. The rate is a strong indication of how an investment is performing, the company says.
“This speaks highly of Waterloo founders’ ability to thrive here in southwestern Ontario, well outside of Silicon Valley, New-York or Boston,” said Vivek Goel, president and vice-chancellor of the University. “Waterloo companies like ApplyBoard, Vidyard and Clearco are paving the way for future founders who want to grow within Canada, helping to increase the prominence of the Toronto-Waterloo tech ecosystem on the global stage.”
The findings indicate that Waterloo founders are being underestimated or undervalued by investors, said Alex Norman, a partner at N49P and co-founder of TechTO. “As investors see more and more University of Waterloo founders succeed, this may lead to more teams being funded or higher valuations for early-stage companies.”
While Canadian founders might be initially passed over by U.S. investors, great results for Waterloo founders over time are allowing early supporters to reap outsized rewards.
“It is no longer a secret that the University of Waterloo is a top school for innovative talent in North America,” said John Dick, director of Concept, the University’s experiential entrepreneurship program.
Young companies will continue to flourish in Waterloo Region through the University’s Campus Innovation Ecosystem and Velocity Incubator, which offer many problem-solving and venture-building opportunities, he said.
While founders with Waterloo pedigrees might not see the same level of investor demand as those at larger institutions in the U.S. AngelList says that can make them undervalued, “meaning that investors willing to back the founders from these institutions may have an opportunity to capture some excess returns.”
The findings come at an eventful time for Velocity, the University’s flagship entrepreneurial incubator, which announced recently that the total amount of funding raised by Velocity companies surpassed $2.4 billion. The incubator took almost a decade to reach the $1-billion mark but less than two years to reach $2 billion, showing an acceleration in both deal numbers and sizes. Velocity is expecting an alumni company to go through IPO for the first time later this year.
Velocity started its own pre-seed venture fund in 2019, and 18 out of 19 companies they have invested in so far received meaningful follow-on investments, highlighting the program’s ability to support early-stage founders and help them turn ideas and prototypes into marketable, scalable companies.
“As we move to more and more renewable penetration, this intermittency will make a greater impact on the electric power system,” says Emre Gençer, a research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). That’s because grid operators will increasingly resort to fossil-fuel-based “peaker” plants that compensate for the intermittency of the variable renewable energy (VRE) sources of sun and wind. “If we’re to achieve zero-carbon electricity, we must replace all greenhouse gas-emitting sources,” Gençer says.
Low- and zero-carbon alternatives to greenhouse-gas emitting peaker plants are in development, such as arrays of lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen power generation. But each of these evolving technologies comes with its own set of advantages and constraints, and it has proven difficult to frame the debate about these options in a way that’s useful for policymakers, investors, and utilities engaged in the clean energy transition.
Now, Gençer and Drake D. Hernandez SM ’21 have come up with a model that makes it possible to pin down the pros and cons of these peaker-plant alternatives with greater precision. Their hybrid technological and economic analysis, based on a detailed inventory of California’s power system, was published online last month in Applied Energy. While their work focuses on the most cost-effective solutions for replacing peaker power plants, it also contains insights intended to contribute to the larger conversation about transforming energy systems.
“Our study’s essential takeaway is that hydrogen-fired power generation can be the more economical option when compared to lithium-ion batteries—even today, when the costs of hydrogen production, transmission, and storage are very high,” says Hernandez, who worked on the study while a graduate research assistant for MITEI. Adds Gençer, “If there is a place for hydrogen in the cases we analyzed, that suggests there is a promising role for hydrogen to play in the energy transition.”
Adding up the costs
California serves as a stellar paradigm for a swiftly shifting power system. The state draws more than 20 percent of its electricity from solar and approximately 7 percent from wind, with more VRE coming online rapidly. This means its peaker plants already play a pivotal role, coming online each evening when the sun goes down or when events such as heat waves drive up electricity use for days at a time.
“We looked at all the peaker plants in California,” recounts Gençer. “We wanted to know the cost of electricity if we replaced them with hydrogen-fired turbines or with lithium-ion batteries.” The researchers used a core metric called the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) as a way of comparing the costs of different technologies to each other. LCOE measures the average total cost of building and operating a particular energy-generating asset per unit of total electricity generated over the hypothetical lifetime of that asset.
Selecting 2019 as their base study year, the team looked at the costs of running natural gas-fired peaker plants, which they defined as plants operating 15 percent of the year in response to gaps in intermittent renewable electricity. In addition, they determined the amount of carbon dioxide released by these plants and the expense of abating these emissions. Much of this information was publicly available.
Coming up with prices for replacing peaker plants with massive arrays of lithium-ion batteries was also relatively straightforward: “There are no technical limitations to lithium-ion, so you can build as many as you want; but they are super expensive in terms of their footprint for energy storage and the mining required to manufacture them,” says Gençer.
But then came the hard part: nailing down the costs of hydrogen-fired electricity generation. “The most difficult thing is finding cost assumptions for new technologies,” says Hernandez. “You can’t do this through a literature review, so we had many conversations with equipment manufacturers and plant operators.”
The team considered two different forms of hydrogen fuel to replace natural gas, one produced through electrolyzer facilities that convert water and electricity into hydrogen, and another that reforms natural gas, yielding hydrogen and carbon waste that can be captured to reduce emissions. They also ran the numbers on retrofitting natural gas plants to burn hydrogen as opposed to building entirely new facilities. Their model includes identification of likely locations throughout the state and expenses involved in constructing these facilities.
The researchers spent months compiling a giant dataset before setting out on the task of analysis. The results from their modeling were clear: “Hydrogen can be a more cost-effective alternative to lithium-ion batteries for peaking operations on a power grid,” says Hernandez. In addition, notes Gençer, “While certain technologies worked better in particular locations, we found that on average, reforming hydrogen rather than electrolytic hydrogen turned out to be the cheapest option for replacing peaker plants.”
Credit: DOI: 10.1016/j.apenergy.2021.117314
A tool for energy investors
When he began this project, Gençer admits he “wasn’t hopeful” about hydrogen replacing natural gas in peaker plants. “It was kind of shocking to see in our different scenarios that there was a place for hydrogen.” That’s because the overall price tag for converting a fossil-fuel based plant to one based on hydrogen is very high, and such conversions likely won’t take place until more sectors of the economy embrace hydrogen, whether as a fuel for transportation or for varied manufacturing and industrial purposes.
A nascent hydrogen production infrastructure does exist, mainly in the production of ammonia for fertilizer. But enormous investments will be necessary to expand this framework to meet grid-scale needs, driven by purposeful incentives. “With any of the climate solutions proposed today, we will need a carbon tax or carbon pricing; otherwise nobody will switch to new technologies,” says Gençer.
The researchers believe studies like theirs could help key energy stakeholders make better-informed decisions. To that end, they have integrated their analysis into SESAME, a life cycle and techno-economic assessment tool for a range of energy systems that was developed by MIT researchers. Users can leverage this sophisticated modeling environment to compare costs of energy storage and emissions from different technologies, for instance, or to determine whether it is cost-efficient to replace a natural gas-powered plant with one powered by hydrogen.
“As utilities, industry, and investors look to decarbonize and achieve zero-emissions targets, they have to weigh the costs of investing in low-carbon technologies today against the potential impacts of climate change moving forward,” says Hernandez, who is currently a senior associate in the energy practice at Charles River Associates. Hydrogen, he believes, will become increasingly cost-competitive as its production costs decline and markets expand.
A study group member of MITEI’s soon-to-be published Future of Storage study, Gençer knows that hydrogen alone will not usher in a zero-carbon future. But, he says, “Our research shows we need to seriously consider hydrogen in the energy transition, start thinking about key areas where hydrogen should be used, and start making the massive investments necessary.”
Anyone using a cellphone, laptop or electric vehicle depends on lithium. The element is in tremendous demand. And although the supply of lithium around the world is plentiful, getting access to it and extracting it remains a challenging and inefficient process.
An interdisciplinary team of engineers and scientists is developing a way to extract lithium from contaminated water. New research, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, could simplify the process of extracting lithium from aqueous brines, potentially create a much larger supply and reduce costs of the element for batteries to power electric vehicles, electronics and a wide range of other devices. Currently, lithium is most commonly sourced from salt brines in South America using solar evaporation, a costly process that can take years and loses much of the lithium along the way.
The research team from The University of Texas at Austin and University of California, Santa Barbara designed membranes for precise separation of lithium over other ions, such as sodium, significantly improving the efficiency of gathering the coveted element.
“The study’s findings have significant implications for addressing major resource constraints for lithium, with the potential to also extract it from water generated in oil and gas production for batteries,” said Benny Freeman, a professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin and a co-author on the paper.
Beyond salt brines, wastewater generated in oil and gas production also contains lithium but remains untapped today. Just a single week’s worth of water from hydraulic fracturing in Texas’s Eagle Ford Shale has the potential to produce enough lithium for 300 electric vehicle batteries or 1.7 million smartphones, the researchers said. This example shows the scale of opportunities for this new technique to vastly increase lithium supply and lower costs for devices that rely on it.
At the heart of the discovery is a novel polymer membrane the researchers created using crown ethers, which are ligands with specific chemical functionality to bind certain ions. Crown ethers had not previously been applied or studied as integral parts of water treatment membranes, but they can target specific molecules in water—a key ingredient for lithium extraction.
In most polymers, sodium travels through membranes faster than lithium. However, in these new materials, lithium travels faster than sodium, which is a common contaminant in lithium-containing brines. Through computer modeling, the team discovered why this was happening. Sodium ions bind with the crown ethers, slowing them down, while lithium ions remain unbound, enabling them to move more quickly through the polymer.
The findings represent a new frontier in membrane science that required above-and-beyond collaboration between the universities in such areas as polymer synthesis, membrane characterization and modeling simulation. The research was supported as part of the Center for Materials for Water and Energy Systems, an Energy Frontier Research Center at UT Austin funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The lead authors of the paper are Samuel J. Warnock of UCSB’s Materials Department and Rahul Sujanani and Everett S. Zofchak from the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. Other contributors are, from UT Austin, professors Venkat Ganesan and Freeman and researchers Theodore J. Dilenschneider; and from UCSB, Chemical Engineering assistant professor Chris Bates, Chemistry professor Mahdi Abu-Omar, and researchers Kalin G. Hanson, Shou Zhao and Sanjoy Mukherjee.
The term ‘DNA’ immediately calls to mind the double-stranded helix that contains all our genetic information. But the individual units of its two strands are pairs of molecules bonded with each other in a selective, complementary fashion. Turns out, one can take advantage of this pairing property to perform complex mathematical calculations, and this forms the basis of DNA nanotechnology and DNA computing.
Since DNA has only two strands, performing even a simple calculation requires multiple chemical reactions using different sets of DNA. In most existing research, the DNA for each reaction are added manually, one by one, into a single reaction tube, which makes the process very cumbersome.
Microfluidic chips, which consist of narrow channels etched onto a material like plastic, offer a way to automate the process. But despite their promise, the use of microfluidic chips for DNA computing remains underexplored.
“Our hope is that DNA-based CPUs will replace electronic CPUs in the future because they consume less power, which will help with global warming. DNA-based CPUs also provide a platform for complex calculations like deep learning solutions and mathematical modelling,” says Dr. Youngjun Song from INU, who led the study.
Dr. Song and team used 3D printing to fabricate their microfluidic chip, which can execute Boolean logic, one of the fundamental logics of computer programming. Boolean logic is a type of true-or-false logic that compares inputs and returns a value of ‘true’ or ‘false’ depending on the type of operation, or ‘logic gate,’ used. The logic gate in this experiment consisted of a single-stranded DNA template.
Different single-stranded DNA were then used as inputs. If part of an input DNA had a complementary Watson-Crick sequence to the template DNA, it paired to form double-stranded DNA. The output was considered true or false based on the size of the final DNA.
What makes the designed chip extraordinary is a motor-operated valve system that can be operated using a PC or smartphone. The chip and software set-up together form a microfluidic processing unit (MPU). Thanks to the valve system, the MPU could perform a series of reactions to execute a combination of logic operations in a rapid and convenient manner.
This unique valve system of the programmable DNA-based MPU paves the way for more complex cascades of reactions that can code for extended functions. “Future research will focus on a total DNA computing solution with DNA algorithms and DNA storage systems,” says Dr. Song.
Many project hydrogen as the ultimate alternative fuel, but how does it stack up now and in the future?
In the conversation of sustainable motoring, there has long been a quiet alternative to electricity as a propulsion for our cars – hydrogen. Projected by many as a no-compromise alternative fuel that just needs more development, the reality is somewhat more complicated.
Manufacturers are persisting regardless, with Toyota, Honda and Hyundai all at the forefront of the technology in 2021.
Its future in locomotive and long-haul trucking will almost certainly drive its continued development, and as the technology matures further some have started thinking about its applications in future motorsport – an offshoot from the main technological drive that could make it viable, and crucially more entertaining than racing EVs.
What is hydrogen fuel, and how does it work?
As the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen is a great place to start when it comes to using it as fuel. Yet while sourcing it isn’t an issue, the process of turning it into useable fuel is where the complexity lies. For use in cars, hydrogen needs to be turned into its liquid form, which requires it to be compressed and kept at cryogenic temperatures.
This process is both energy intensive and expensive, which is where the practical realities of its commercial use come into question. As it stands, the production of compressed hydrogen is more energy and carbon intensive than what it gives back during the ‘burn’, but this process is being continually refined and improved. Soon, there will be a Europe-recognised certification of ‘Green Hydrogen’, which will guarantee the carbon neutrality of its production.
There are also many entirely different ways that hydrogen can create energy and thus drive cars, further complicating the technology. For the sake of simplicity let’s focus on the main two: hydrogen combustion and hydrogen fuel cells.
Hydrogen combustion works, as its name suggests, in exactly the same way as fossil fuel combustion engines, but without the carbon emissions. It sounds perfect, in theory, but the reality is quite different. In this process, liquid hydrogen is stored in an insulated and pressurised tank where it is injected directly into the cylinders at high pressure, burning in the same four-stroke cycle as a normal petrol engine.
Running fuel in a pressurised circuit is not the issue – cars that burn compressed natural gas are common in Australia and Brazil. Rather it lies in compressed hydrogen’s poor energy density, which makes it burn very inefficiently. BMW developed a limited-run version of a 7-seriesback in 2002 with a V12 engine converted to run on liquid hydrogen, but its fuel consumption was rated at around 50l/100kms or 4.7mpg, around four times higher than that of its petrol V12 counterpart.
From an emissions perspective, the carbon footprint of producing that much fuel is extremely high per kg, which more than counteracted its lack of a CO2 output at the exhaust pipe. And there is another long-standing issue associated with burning liquid hydrogen, as while it may not produce CO2, it does still produce large amounts of nitrogen oxide (NOx), or more specifically the nasty greenhouse gas associated with VW’s dieselgate emissions scandal.
Hydrogen fuel cells
Hydrogen fuel cells, by contrast, don’t burn liquid hydrogen, but create electricity from it by a completely different method.
Rather than using any form of combustion engine, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles use the process of electrolysis to create electricity, which feeds a battery and then an electric motor.
As well as being far more efficient per unit of liquid hydrogen than quite literally setting it on fire in a combustion process, a fuel cell also produces no harmful NOx emissions. This, in theory, combines the benefits of EVs and combustion engines, with the former’s lack of harmful emissions and the latter’s fast fill time come refuelling.
The drawbacks once again come from the process of creating the liquid hydrogen, before taking into account the relative complexity and expense of having what is essentially a tiny atom-splitting power station on your driveway.
As battery technology continues to grow in leaps and bounds, the benefits of a quick fill time will also become less of a drawcard.
This hasn’t stopped manufacturers such as Hyundai and Toyota from persisting with hydrogen fuel cells, exemplified by the all-new second-generation Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo. So while your next car is far more likely to be electric than hydrogen, it certainly will have its place in the wider ecosystem.
Motorsport and combustion engines
For those of us skeptical about the reality of carbon-neutral motor racing, hydrogen does offer another alternative to traditional eFuels as a clean fuel source for the continuation of motorsport and combustion engines.
While widespread applications of hydrogen combustion engines make little commercial sense, the ability to run racing engines on liquid hydrogen could be a possibility in future.
Toyota is already experimenting with the technology, running a converted Corolla racing car in the Japanese Super Taikyu Series in 2021. As mentioned above, the lack of carbon emission is the obvious reason to apply this technology, although Toyota has not approached the issue of NOx.
Luckily, technology to remove nitrogen oxide from exhaust gases has been underpinned by advances in diesel technology of all places, utilising AdBlue technology, or a mixture of urea and deionised water, to remove NOx before it reaches the end of the exhaust pipe.
Alharbawi Naseer Tawfiq Alwan assembled a prototype of the distiller in the UrFU workshop. Credit: Ilya Safarov.
Distillation of water using solar energy is considered one of the most popular desalination methods today.
Power engineers at Ural Federal University (UrFU), together with colleagues from Iraq, have developed a new desalination technology, which is claimed to be much more effective than others, by incorporating a rotating cylinder.
The method proposed by the UrFU power engineers will significantly reduce the cost of desalination and will increase production volumes by four times.
The experimental new solar distiller incorporates a rectangular basin, inside of which is a horizontally oriented black steel cylinder. The basin is filled with undrinkable water, and the cylinder is slowly rotated by a solar-powered DC motor.
The rotating hollow cylinder inside the solar distiller accelerates water evaporation in the vessel by forming a thin film of water on the outer and inner surface of the cylinder, which is constantly renewed with each turn. As the film is so thin, the water film quickly evaporates due to the rapid transfer of heat from the surface of the cylinder to the adjacent water film. To increase the temperature of water under the cylinder, the engineers used a solar collector.
prototype was tested on a rooftop in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg for several months (June-October, 2019). As part of the experiment, the rotation speed of the cylinder inside the solar distiller was 0.5 rpm. This intensity and time are enough to evaporate a thin film of water from the surface of the cylinder.
The tests showed the high efficiency and reliability of the developed device. In addition, the scientists noted that the relatively high intensity of solar radiation and low ambient air temperature also contributed to the performance of water distillation.
“The performance improvement factor of the created solar distiller, compared to traditional devices, was at least 280% in the relatively hot months (June, July, and August) and at least 300% and 400% in the cooler months (September and October), at the same time, the cumulative water distillation capacity reached 12.5 l/m2 per day in summer and 3.5 l/m2 per day in winter,” commentedAlharbawi Naseer Tawfik Alwan, a research engineer at the Department of Nuclear Power Plants and Renewable Energy (UrFU).
The desalination technology created in the UrFU with a simple design and low cost may be especially in demand in the Middle East and Africa – in countries with a high potential for solar energy and a shortage of freshwater.
In the future, scientists plan to improve the technology and increase the performance of the solar distiller at the lowest possible capital and operating costs for different climatic conditions.
Researchers developed a long-lasting, stable nanoscale material for electrolysis.
Researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF) designed the world’s first nanoscale material capable of efficiently splitting seawater into oxygen and green hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel, a press release explains.
The development is another step towards improving our capacity for harvesting hydrogen fuel in a bid to fight climate change by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
The researchers detailed their long-lasting nanoscale material for electrolysis — the process of separating water into hydrogen and oxygen — in the journal Advanced Materials. According to study co-author Yang Yang, the new material “will open a new window for efficiently producing clean hydrogen fuel from seawater.”
There has been great debate in recent times over the feasibility of hydrogen fuel for helping to combat hydrogen fuel. Though Tesla and SpaceX CEO recently called the ideaof hydrogen cars “mind-bogglingly stupid,” companies such as Toyota and BMW have shown their support for the technology and are developing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Meeting the rapidly growing requirement for green hydrogen
For their nanoscale material, the UCF researchers devised a thin-film material featuring nanostructures on its surface. In their study, the scientists explain that the material is made of nickel selenide with added, or “doped,” iron and phosphor. “The seawater electrolysis performance achieved by the dual-doped film far surpasses those of the most recently reported, state-of-the-art electrolysis catalysts and meets the demanding requirements needed for practical application in the industries,” Yang explained.
They say that not only is their material effective at catalyzing the electrolysis process, it also shows the stability and high performance required to use the material at an industrial scale — they tested their material for over 200 hours and said it retained high performance and stability throughout the tests. Earlier this month, French firm Lhyfe announced it was commencing tests on the world’s first offshore green hydrogen plant, which will make use of the abundant surrounding water source and a nearby wind turbine.
Though there is still debate over the use of hydrogen fuel as opposed to electricity, we will be much better off in a world where hydrogen and electricity compete with each other, instead of with the current supremacy of the internal combustion engine.
So, nanotechnology.“Great Things from Small Things”. Really amazing stuff … really.
So amazing in fact, that some researchers and engineers at Caltech, MIT, and ETH Zurich have discovered how to make lighter than Kevlar materials that can withstand supersonic microparticle impacts.
What does all this mean for material science? A whole lot if you ask me. I mean, this is literally going to change to way we produced shielding of any kind, especially for law enforcement agencies. Hang on a second, I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.
A new study by engineers at the above-mentioned institutes discovered that “nano-architected” materials are showing insane promise in use as armor. What are “nano-architected” materials? Simply put, they’re materials and structures that are designed from “precisely patterned nanoscale structures,” meaning that the entire thing is a pre-meditated and arranged structure; what you see is exactly what was desired.
Not only this, but the material is completed from nanoscale carbon struts. Arranged much like rings in chainmail, these carbon struts are combined, layer upon layer to create the structure you see in the main photo. So yeah, medieval knights had it right all along, they just needed more layers of something that already weighed upwards of 40 lbs for a full body suit.
So now that the researchers had a structure, what to do with it. Why not shoot things at it? Well, like any scientists, pardon me, “researchers,” that have been cooped up in a lab for too long, that’s just what they did, in the process, documenting and recording all the results.
To do this, researchers shot laser-induced microparticles up to 1,100 meters per second at the nanostructure. A quick calculation and you’re looking at a particle that’s traveling at 3,608 feet per second. Want to know more? That’s 2,460 miles per hour!
Two test structures were arranged, one with slightly looser struts, and the second with a tighter formation. The tighter formation kept the particle from tearing through and even embedded into the structure.
If that’s not enough, and this is a big one, once the particle was removed and the underlying structure examined, researchers found that the surrounding structure remained intact. Yes, this means it can be reused.
The overall result? They found that shooting this structure with microparticles at supersonic speeds proved to offer a higher impact resistance and absorption effect than Kevlar, steel, aluminum, and a range of other impact-absorbing materials. The images in the gallery even show that particles didn’t even make it thirty percent of the way through the structure; I counted about six to seven deformed layers.
To get an idea of where this sort of tech will be taking things, co-author of the paper, Julia R. Greer of Caltech, whose lab led the material’s fabrication, says that “The knowledge from this work… could provide design principles for ultra-lightweight impact resistant materials [for use in] efficient armor materials, protective coatings, and blast-resistant shields desirable in defense and space applications.”
Imagine for a second what this means once these structures are created on a larger scale. It will change the face of armor, be it destined for human or machine use, coatings, and downright clothing.
I’m not saying that suddenly we can stop bullets walking down the street, but it won’t be long until funding for large-scale production begins, and what I just said may become a reality. Maybe not for all people at first, but the military will definitely have their eye on this tech.
Form Energy Battery System Rendering. Courtesy Form Energy
Salt and rust – the bane of your car’s existence — may be the keys to storing enough renewable energy to power the electric grid for several days. That’s according to two local companies that have emerged with innovative battery designs based on cheap, widely-available materials.
After four years of stealth R&D, Somerville-based Form Energyhas emerged with what could be a breakthrough energy storage technology, based on rust.
Form Energy president and CEO Ted Wiley says the company has produced hundreds of working prototypes of an iron-air-exchange battery that can store large amounts of energy for several days.
“We’ve completed the science,” says Wiley, “what’s left to do is scale up from lab-scale protoypes to grid-scale power plants. “
In full production, “the modules will produce electricity for one-tenth the cost of any technology available today for grid storage,” Wiley says.
If the plan comes to fruition, Form Energy’s batteries could realize what’s called “the renewable energy Holy Grail” — relatively inexpensive, reliable grid-scale energy storage. Because solar and wind do not generate power when the sun is down or the wind isn’t blowing, storing their power for down times is the key to clean energy reliability.
The Form Energy battery is composed of cells filled with thousands of small iron pellets that, rust when exposed to air. When oxygen is removed the rust reverts to iron. By controlling the process the battery is charged and discharged.
The plan is to mount small cells into larger modules, then assemble modules into batteries that can be scaled to power electric grids. Wiley expects to have a 300Mwh, full-scale pilot project, using 500 modules, up and running at the Great River Energy power plant in Minnesota in 2023.
In nearby Cambridge, researchers at Malta, Inc. are working on an energy storage technology based on an equally humble material: molten salt.
Electricity from the grid is converted into thermal energy and stored as heat in trays of molten sodium. When the grid needs energy the process is reversed and the molten sodium is used to generate electricity.