[permaculture] The Pittsburgh startup that has big plans for batteries | Guardian Sustainable Business | theguardian.com

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Sun Apr 20 22:56:31 EDT 2014


The Pittsburgh startup that has big plans for batteries

Batteries are famously toxic, but Aquion Energy seeking to change that.
It's using more sustainable materials to put lightning in a bottle - and
could help boost other cleantech

*Aquion's contribution*

Aquion, which began as a spinoff of Carnegie Mellon University, is
venture-capital funded. It has already moved its research out of the lab
and into manufacturing: the company makes money by selling its batteries to
distributors or project developers for stationary energy storage.

One factor that distinguishes Aquion is the novel cocktail of materials
that it uses in its batteries. Each cell has an electrode at each end, a
separator to divide the two, and an electrolyte to create an
electrochemical reaction with the electrodes to produce electricity. Aquion
uses manganese oxide and activated carbon for the electrodes, and a sodium
sulfate solution for the electrolyte. The separator is made from a
synthetic material that has a structure similar to cotton.

"We are using common and benign materials of salt water, dirt and carbon,"
said Ted Wiley, vice president of product and corporate strategy at Aquion.
"We are using materials that are non-toxic and readily available in high
volumes. And they won't be damaging to the environment."

Jaffe agrees, noting that Aquion's materials are indeed more environmental
friendly than some of the batteries on the market today, including the far
more common lead-acid and nickel-cadmium cells.

Lead-acid batteries are commonly used to power cars or for use as back-up
power systems. Lead, which is toxic, requires special handling after the
batteries are spent. In fact, 96% of lead acid automotive batteries are
recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection
New batteries usually contain 60% to 80% recycled lead and plastic.

Aquion's products also compete with lithium-ion batteries. These cells,
which commonly power laptops and cell phones, are also used in electric
cars because they can hold a lot of more energy in a given volume than
lead-acid batteries. Many energy storage project developers also market
lithium-ion batteries to businesses and utilities.

The materials inside lithium-ion batteries pose fewer environmental risks
than those of lead-acid or nickel-cadmium cells when they end up at
landfills, Jaffe said. But lithium-ion batteries can pose ethical issues.
Cobalt, a material that is commonly used for consumer electronics
batteries, is often sourced from the Democratic Republic of
where profits from selling minerals has helped fund its long-standing and
bloody internal wars.

Lithium-ion batteries also could pose a greater fire risk because their
electrolytes are flammable. Part of the ongoing research to improve
lithium-ion batteries involves coming up with less flammable electrolytes.

Aquion's batteries, which Wiley says are safer and longer-lasting than
lithium-ion ones, have already begun to find a market. The company is
gearing up for mass production at its new factory, which will be able to
produce 200MW hours of batteries per year. And, Wiley noted, it will reach
that level by the second half of this year. Siemens has bought a system for
its manufacturing and testing facility in Georgia, and several utilities
are doing field testing of Aquion's systems.

Aquion has already shipped to its first business customer: a ranch in
California that is using a 60 kilowatt-hour system to run its daily
operations, Wiley said.

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