Bill Gates betting big on new battery technology

Even the big boys think there are better ways of providing for the world's insatiable energy consumption. Automologist, MAC, repo...



Even the big boys think there are better ways of providing for the world's insatiable energy consumption. Automologist, MAC, reports on what the world's billionaires are up to in the race to come up with the next 'green' energy solution.

You would have to be hermit not to realize that the world is facing an energy crisis that is coupled to a pollution crisis. World headlines bombard us with more news on how we have reached peak oil production, and to maintain these levels, we have to resort to environmentally-damaging fracking of shale; how our desire for cheap electricity is creating lung-clogging pollution from all of the coal-powered power stations whilst demand for electricity to power air-cons to cool us down or heating systems to warm us up continually rise.

Renewable energy has been the buzz word for years now and within the USA, some 40% of new energy projects in the past few years have been either wind- or solar-based. The trouble with renewables has always been just where do you get your supply when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining? Solving this conundrum will allow alternative power projects to become viable competition to fossil fuel electricity generation. We have had lead-based batteries for hundreds of years now - although these are too heavy and inefficient for the purpose - and of course more recently we have started to use lithium-ion (Li-ion) and nickel cadmium (NiCd) in our mobile phones and Tesla cars. Again, these offerings are not really up to the task; they are expensive and made from relatively rare elements, and worse, they cannot run a home for more than a few hours or a car for more than 200 kilometres. Even worse still, at US$400 per kilo watt hour, they are expensive and possibly double the price that alternative power advocates believe will unlock green power.

Thus, developing a storage system beyond Li-ion is absolutely critical to making electric vehicles ubiquitous and renewable energy a viable alternative, although the likes of Elon Musk with his new mega Li-ion battery factory may not agree. Bill Gates is another who is at odds with Musk’s idea of a Li-ion-powered future and has started to invest heavily in new technology being developed with the hope that renewables will fulfill the promise of a clean and green future.

Battery believers think that the technology is changing and a number of them are betting big, in fact to the tune of about US$5 billion in the past ten years, to lead the charge into the next era of power generation and storage. One such individual famous for being the world’s richest man and perhaps the greatest ever philanthropist we have ever or will ever see - Gates - started to invest in new battery technology as long ago as 2011 when he made an undisclosed investment into Ambri Inc., a Massachusetts-based company run by MIT Professor, Donald Sadoway, that is at the forefront of the drive to be the first to get this new technology to market.

Prof. Donald Sadoway, co-inventor of the liquid metal battery. Image: ted.com.
Gates is not alone, though. Billionaire Nick Pritzker and his son Joby, through their Prelude Ventures and Tao Invest funds, backs Pittsburgh-based Aquion Energy; in Aquion, a professor from Carnegie Mellon University is converting a factory that formerly made Volkswagen’s and Sony TV’s into one that manufactures batteries for residences and hotels. Another tech billionaire, Vinod Khosla, supports California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which developed a lithium polymer product that powers homes and cars, and is being tested by the top three U.S. automakers. Sales are expected to begin next year, allegedly. 

The research and development of the next generation battery is thought to be a US$50 billion-a-year battery industry as all nations scramble to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The potential is vast and the market includes everything from flashlights and home solar to power sources for islands and storage that enable the day’s sunshine to power the evening’s lights. The field of wannabes is populated by industry giants such as Panasonic and LG who stand shoulder to shoulder with startups like Ambri Inc., all of which are advancing their own ideas and varying technologies.

Gates and Sadoway will be amongst the first to start implementation of the dream. Ambri Inc. plans to transport six 10-ton prototypes loaded with hundreds of liquid metal cells to a microgrid in Alaska, solar and wind farms in Hawaii, and a Consolidated Edison substation in Manhattan. Ambri’s battery will store Con Ed’s excess and then, rather than cranking up another fossil fuel-powered plant when New York needs more power, the utility will tap into the stored battery juice. Sounds like the start of a brave new world to me.

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