Bill Gates-led investors back two startups targeting energy storage

Alex Crees
By Alex Crees

An investment group led by Bill Gates has confirmed it is allocating a portion of a billion-dollar fund to support two startups developing novel methods to store energy.

The group, which includes billionaires Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg, is part of a coalition called Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which aims to fight climate change by backing companies who specialize in clean energy innovation.

According to its website, BEV has identified five primary areas of focus for investment opportunities: grid-scale storage, liquid fuel, micro/mini-grids, alternative building materials and geothermal energy; however, Gates previously has said “anything that leads to cheap, clean, reliable energy we’re open-minded to.”

The first two companies that have attracted BEV support are startups Form Energy and Quidnet Energy, a BEV spokesperson confirmed to Quartz Media.  Both companies are focused on developing innovative technologies to store energy, but via entirely different approaches.

What did these companies do to attract the attention of billionaires?  Read on to find out.

An alternative to the lithium-ion battery

Coming up with an alternative to the standard lithium-ion battery may be a daunting task, but experts in the field believe that Form Energy could be the one to do it.

Form boasts a team of founders who are veterans in the storage industry: Mateo Jaramillo, a former theology student who built the energy storage business at Tesla, Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT professor who worked with the Department of Energy’s Joint Center on Energy Storage Research, and Ted Wiley, who helped found Aquion, a long-duration storage company.

The company received $9 million from BEV and other partners to fund its work investigating new chemistries that could store energy for weeks or even months, rather than mere hours or days.

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“Thanks to lithium-ion batteries, storing energy for less than a day is a solved problem,” Wiley told Quartz. “Our goal is to find solutions to store energy for weeks, months, and maybe even across seasons at a fraction of the cost of current technology.”

The company says it has identified at least two types of chemistries that could potentially store energy for extended periods of time.

One candidate is a “sulfur-flow” battery, which Chiang detailed in the journal Joule in 2017.  Sulfur, a natural byproduct of gas and oil refining, is plentiful and cheap relative to its long-term energy storage capabilities.

According to Chiang, “the chemical cost of storage is the lowest of known batteries.”

Overhauling a centuries-old technology

Quidnet Energy, on the other hand, is banking on a substance even more abundant than sulfur: water.

According to its website, Quidnet is working towards “decarbonization of the electricity grid” through pumped hydro, the largest and most cost-effective form of energy storage today.

Traditionally, pumped hydro relies on two water reservoirs at different elevations.  When demand is low, excess energy – such as that produced by wind turbines – is used to pump water from the lower reservoir to the upper.  When demand is high and that excess energy is required, the water from the upper reservoir is released, generating power as the water moves down through a turbine to the lower elevation.

Pumped hydro itself isn’t a novel concept – the first use of pumped storage dates back to the 1890s – but due to its dependency on specific types of terrain, such as mountains, lakes or underground caverns, it is not implemented widely enough to serve as a reliable source of back-up energy for the grid.

Quidnet’s approach, however, abandons the traditional method of storing water at the ground’s surface, and instead sends it underground, converting gas and oil wells into energy storage facilities.

“Water is pumped down the well to apply pressure to a body of rock, and in doing so, store energy in the compression of the rock,” the company explains on its website.  “When it is time to discharge back onto the grid, the compression in the rock is released, which pushes the water back up the well and through a turbine to generate electricity.”

The result is an energy storage approach that is terrain-independent, reliable, cost-effective and modular, according to Quidnet, which received $6.4 million from BEV and EVOK Innovations to develop field tests for the concept.

“It’s exciting when you can put a concept like this to practice,” Aaron Mandell, co-founder of Quidnet Energy, told Forbes. “I find the idea of using water to generate clean energy very intriguing. A lot of what I have done in my career is at the energy and water nexus.”