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Innovation & Startups

The story behind Aquion Energy, the promising sustainable energy storage solution


Growing up, Jay Whitacre had a dream. He wanted to work for NASA, a dream he realized upon receiving his doctorate from University of Michigan when he landed a job with the Jet Propulsion in California.
 
Life was good and the work was exciting, for awhile, he says. Then he began thinking about the global energy crisis and started doing the math. He realized the demand for energy would well exceed the energy the world had in ready supply, he says.
 
With that, research commenced on a sustainable, scalable, cost-competitive energy storage system and Aquion Energy was born. The year was 2008. It came together with assistance from a company in California that agreed to allow the research to take place at CMU.
 
“Many universities don’t allow this kind of interaction, which I think is a mistake,” Whitacre told an audience at a recent Project Olympus Open House on CMU’s campus. “This is a decade long project, based on speculation and risk. It’s a long drawn out process.”
 
As the research ensued, the need to integrate renewals like wind and solar with the energy grid through an energy storage solution became apparent. The search was on for a system that not only proved to be environmentally adaptable, but promised a long life and was completely reliable.
 
“Energy technology is all about the cost,” he adds. “We had a lot of technical things to overcome.”
 
In April, Aquion announced a $35 million round of venture funding with backing from several investors including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates who believes in the need for a “battery miracle” to support the growth of renewable energy.  Gates has funded three battery-startup firms to date.
 
The company was also named one of 50 Disruptive Companies 2013 by the MIT Technology Review.
 
The Aquion solution uses seawater and magnesium oxide, creating a utility-scale, temperature tolerant technology that can endure 5,000+ charging cycles with 85% efficiency. The sodium-ion solution makes the batteries environmentally-friendly, minus the toxic chemicals contained in acid and alkaline-based batteries or the problems associated with lithium ion units.

Apparently, it's also edible, according to the Wall Street Journal.
 
With a battery factory underway on the former Sony site in Westmoreland County, Aquion hopes to roll out the first batteries within a year. The plant is expected to generate 400+ skilled manufacturing and engineering jobs. The company headquarters, based in Lawrenceville in an old railcar building, employs 127 people.
 
The dream now? Build it in Pittsburgh and replicate the factory in other parts of the world, says Whitacre.
 
Writer: Deb Smit
Source: Jay Whitacre, Aquion Energy
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