Home' Technology Review : March April 2013 Contents 51
50 DISRUPTIV E COMPAN IES 2013
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
VOL.116 | NO.2
At least at first, Ambri wants to avoid working with electric
utilities, says Giudice, a former Massachusetts state energy offi-
cial: utilities are conservative and have little financial incentive
or regulatory pressure to try out new technologies. Instead, it will
initially target military bases and other facilities willing to pay for
backup power, such as data centers. These applications are not a
huge market, but they will help demonstrate and test the battery.
Later this year, the company plans to make a refrigerator-size
module by stacking hundreds of hockey-puck-size cells and wir-
ing them in series. By 2014, the researchers expect, 80 of those
modules will be packed together in a full-scale commercial pro-
totype that will generate 500 kilowatts and store two megawatt-
hours—enough to power 70 U.S . homes for a full day.
Even after that prototype is up and running, Giudice says,
Ambri still plans to avoid the complex, regulation-heavy world
of utilities in favor of independent power producers, companies
that develop and own energy projects. In west Texas, for example,
there’s often a surplus of wind energy at night, when demand and
price are lowest. Battery storage would let a wind energy devel-
oper provide that power at peak times and earn more money.
Another attractive early market is in cities where batteries could
be more cost-effective than adding new power lines to meet peak
demand for electricity, Giudice says.
If all goes as hoped, Ambri will be able to demonstrate its bat-
teries in multiple installations and show utilities that the tech-
nology is low risk, Giudice says. At that point, the company can
approach utilities and the state regulators that approve invest-
ments in grid equipment. A fully realized utility storage market
could be worth billions of dollars in five to 10 years.
olding up one of the original shot-glass-size cells next
to progressively larger ones—four inches, six inches,
and the hefty 16-inch cell—Bradwell shows how far
his team has come. But Ambri’s researchers now face
the challenge of scaling the liquid-metal battery up to industrial
size. Among other tasks, they must design airtight seals on the
cells and create a thermal management system that makes sure
the heat given off by charging and discharging is enough to keep
the components liquid. The group is still determining the indi-
vidual size that will minimize the fabrication cost, but the cells
will be square, between four and 16 inches per side, and about
two inches tall.
Ambri has enough money to build its first prototypes. But
scaling up production will require more capital at a time when
the financing environment for clean-tech companies is far from
auspicious. Spooked by poor returns, a series of well-publicized
bankruptcies, and the expense of building manufacturing capac-
ity, many venture capitalists have abandoned clean tech, leaving
few financing options.
The financing hurdles are particularly high because grid stor-
age startups are taking on big technical challenges in an industry
that barely exists. “Venture capitalists like to take either technol-
ogy or business risk. Some people can take both, but most don’t,”
says Bilal Zuberi, an investor at General Catalyst Partners, who
has invested in a startup developing grid storage technology
based on compressed air. In its next round, Ambri intends to go
after investors from the power industry, hoping that companies
such as General Electric, ABB, and Siemens can provide not
only money but also credibility and expertise in manufacturing
and marketing. But even if Ambri’s engineering is flawless and
the company secures all the money it needs, it will face the same
obstacle confronting so many other alternative energy compa-
nies: cheap natural gas. Since natural gas has become the pre-
ferred fuel for power generation in the United States, the price
that any grid storage technology must meet to be competitive
has fallen much lower.
The most significant factor in Ambri’s favor may ultimately
be the creaky state of the grid itself. The massive outages caused
by Hurricanes Sandy and Irene painfully exposed how vulner-
able the power system is, leading politicians and the public to
demand solutions. Grid storage could add much-needed resil-
ience and flexibility, providing backup power to buildings and
even communities while allowing grid operators to smooth out
fluctuations in power supply. Some of the large, centralized
power plants that must now be maintained to make sure supply
can meet demand would no longer be needed.
Realizing this vision of an electricity system buffered by hun-
dreds of large batteries will take many years, and it will mean
upending the status quo in the electric power industry. That’s
no easy task. But Ambri believes its battery offers a way to begin
taking it on.
Martin LaMonica is an MIT Technology Review contributing editor.
To make Ambri’s battery cells,
liquid-metal electrodes and a
liquid-salt electrolyte are sealed in
a steel container like this one.
2/6/13 9:13 AM
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