UniEnergy Technologies Goes from Molecules to Megawatts
Vanadium, in the eyes of energy storage innovators, is a lovely, generous element, even though it’s often found in some dirty places. It is named for a Norse goddess of beauty. Its color, when dissolved in an electrolyte solution, changes from lilac to green to blue to yellow as it easily gives and takes electrons, creating the current inside a battery.
Vanadium is also increasingly sought both for its traditional use as an alloy to strengthen steel, and as the key ingredient in a battery chemistry that could form part of the solution to one of the biggest challenges the world faces—climate change. Electricity storage systems such as vanadium batteries can help add large amounts of solar and wind energy to the power grid, providing a consistent supply at times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Utilities and their regulators see such large-scale energy storage as a key enabling technology for smart grids, distributed energy systems, and meaningful levels of reliable carbon-free electricity from solar and wind to replace coal and gas-fired power plants.
The growing demand for energy storage, in turn, has spawned lots of companies pursuing a wide array of technologies. One of the contenders is UniEnergy Technologies (UET), based near Seattle. UET is going to market with its vanadium redox flow battery, incorporating refinements to the four-decade-old technology made by the company’s co-founders when they were at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The company has an experienced team, a series of innovations in vanadium electrolyte chemistry and system design, several initial customers, and ambitious plans to scale up production in the next two years.
UET, and the broader energy storage industry, is about to get an important boost from the state. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is scheduled to visit UET on Tuesday, and the company is expected to win two significant deployments with Washington utilities, supported by state funding, as the state positions itself as a leading test bed for new energy storage technologies.
And UET has another potential edge in the large-scale energy storage market expected to blossom over the next five years: One of its main investors, Dalian Bolong Holding Co., Ltd., of China, also happens to own one of the largest suppliers of vanadium and the maker of a central part of the battery hardware.
The origins of UET go back to the early 2000s, when co-founders Liyu Li and Z. Gary Yang had stable, stimulating positions as top research scientists at the DOE laboratory in Richland, WA, working on a range of materials science problems related to energy storage, carbon capture, and other technologies.
“In PNNL, the culture is you work in as many possible directions as you can, doing all kinds of stuff,” says Li, UET’s chief technology officer.
In 2009, they started working together on energy storage systems. Li recalls being captivated by the vanadium redox flow battery concept, invented in the mid-1980s by Maria Skyllas-Kazacos, a professor at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and based on earlier work on flow batteries by NASA researcher Lawrence Thaller in the 1970s.
“One of the prettiest elements in the whole world,” Li says of the active ingredient, vanadium.
Li, Yang, and other researchers began experimenting with new chemistries to address some of the shortcomings of the technology: At the time, its energy density was low—redox flow batteries require an enormous amount of electrolyte to store a meaningful amount of electricity. In addition, it could only operate in narrow range of temperatures, requiring energy-sapping cooling equipment that made the technology economically infeasible.
Their relative lack of familiarity with this specific battery technology freed them up to experiment, Li says.
“We just kept trying all kinds of stuff because we didn’t have any kind of previous experience, so there was no limitations for us,” he says.
Between 2009 and mid-2012, some $2 million in federal funding went into research at PNNL that would lead to the technology UET is bringing to market. Considerably more money went into the technology from other Department of Energy offices, as well as the broader energy storage problems researchers tackled at the lab.
“This is a good example of commercialized technology initially developed by spending tax dollars,” says Yang, who, like Li, immigrated to the U.S. from China, and is UET’s CEO. Both men are U.S. citizens.
They hit upon using a mixture of hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid in the vanadium electrolyte, as opposed to the status quo of just sulfuric acid. This mixed acid formula allows for an increased concentration of vanadium in the electrolyte, unlocking significantly higher energy density and a broader range of operating temperatures. Their approach enabled the battery to work at temperatures between -40 degrees and more than 50 degrees Celsius, making it usable in most parts of the world, and with drastically reduced heating and cooling costs.
Gordon Graff, who worked closely with Li and Yang as manager of a broader grid energy storage initiative at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), says as their results were made public, it generated a great deal of interest from the energy storage industry, including battery makers and utilities.
“We knew what the jugular problems were and we focused on that,” Graff says, adding, “These were the things that have prevented these redox flow batteries from moving into the market.”
Battelle, the nonprofit research group that operates PNNL for the government, has licensed the technology to three companies including UET. The others are WattJoule, based in Lowell, MA, and a third company that has asked PNNL not to identify it, says Graff, who is now overseeing commercialization for PNNL’s entire energy storage portfolio.
“You don’t want to bet on just one horse,” he says, adding that this limited, non-exclusive licensing is common practice at the lab.
Yang says he never thought of trading in his government research job for the risk of a startup company until potential investors approached them. For he and Li, it meant uprooting their families and moving across the state. Li, 45, says his daughter asked him, “Who’s going to pay for my college?”
“It’s a hard decision,” Yang, 51, says, adding that he didn’t have as much gray hair when they started the company in 2012.
They’ve attracted several other gray-hairs of the energy storage business, something UET executives revel in.
“We must be the oldest startup company in the world,” says Rick Winter, 48, who joined UET as chief operating officer in 2013 after a quarter century in the energy storage industry.
Winter, a gregarious Australian, says the easiest description of a flow battery is “like a cross between a normal battery and a hot tub.”
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