We’re pretty sure that all of the Vanadium Flow battery makers are jealous as hell of Form Energy, who this week found it fairly straightforward to raise $40 million to take its ideas for a Flow battery straight to product design. This is likely on the back of its influential investor Breakthrough Energy Ventures which boasts Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Bloomberg ventures as founders.
Co-founder of Form Mateo Jaramillo says that progress has been so fast that instead of working on the problem for five years then heading for a product, they are ready now. The $40 million brings new investors onboard in the form of Italian oil and gas major Eni and Capricorn Investment and existing investors who put in $9 million a year ago.
Alongside Breakthrough in that earlier round was Prelude Ventures, Macquarie Capital, Saudi Aramco and Massachusetts Institute of Technology investment arm The Engine, which first started the company off, as an offshoot of the Institute.
But this is very different from the traditional Vanadium Flow designs, as what this is supposed to be is a different electro-chemical combination, where specialist electrolytes make it more dense, and stable enough to store energy not for a few hours from day time to nighttime, but for weeks or months at a time, on an all together larger scale.
Something like that would revolutionize renewable energy storage, and change the entire complexion of the electrical grid. If several GWh of energy was on hand to draw down, at a moment’s notice, it would virtually kill Gas peaker plants overnight and eat into CCGT design wins.
Jaramillo came out of the team which built Tesla’s energy storage program, and he has combined with an MIT professor Yet-Ming Chiang and one of the Aquion team Ted Wiley. Remember Aquion ran out of cash, went into bankruptcy in 2017 and the was bought out by Chinese investors through Juline-Titans LLC.
Aquion came out of work at Carnegie Mellon University, and it effectively used seawater as an electrolyte and was backed by VC firm Kleiner Perkins. It is still trading today, but it ate up over $190 million in investment before it went bankrupt and very little is known about sales since it went under.
Form Energy swears its new design has nothing to do with Lithium, nor Zinc batteries, but won’t say which chemicals are involved. One of the co-founders
William Woodford, has worked extensively on Polysulfide Flow Batteries which create an ion flow as polysulfide bromide changes into sodium bromide and sodium polysulfide and effective batteries have been built with this technique before, but they have never gone on to become commercially viable as cells at scale. We are led to believe that not only is the technology design complete and tested, not just modelled, but that the energy density and longevity of charge is ideal. Also the company has made no reference to issues with cathode materials, which has dogged lithium technology its entire life.
We are being asked to believe the investment case for Form Energy is not being accelerated because the marketplace is developing too rapidly, but because the research into the technology itself is already complete. They thought it would take ten years, they did it in one.
The company not only describes the market for peaker plants, but suggests this is a stable enough technology to sit in front of renewables and allow them to bid in capacity markets with fossil fuels.
It will have to answer questions on the stability of the electrolyte, the number of charge and re-charge instances that it can support, and how strong the charge is throughout the discharge cycle, and whether that varies. If this is reliable enough to produce dispatchable electricity without being a drag on grid stability, then it only has to outdo Vanadium Flow in terms of energy density and price, and it will fly as long as it does not need anything extra like temperature controlled storage. The company talks about it in terms of supporting “baseload renewables.”
In the lab Form Energy has decided to prioritize the final product design in a go to market format and hope to have a fully functioning battery ready to operate at the cell level. The company now needs to scale up its existing cell design by 10 to 100 times and turn it into a fully engineered product.
If that comes to fruition in the one to two year time frame Form Energy will seek to partner it with renewable generation, to economically restructure power markets. The final system is expected to be capable of several days’ worth of discharge, not just 4 or 12 hours, and it is planning now to go to meaningful scale prototypes. Final systems will be ready to deploy in pilots in
two or three years.
Even if it does, any innovation applied to this would also likely be available to Vanadium Flow devices and better electrolytes for that technology are also threatening to emerge at almost twice the energy density, so it is far from a slam dunk.
There is also the financial Juggernault that is the Lithium Ion battery market, sliding into top gear on the back of Electric Vehicle designs and forecasts.