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Could Iron-Air Batteries Become the Ideal Storage Tech?

By Cas Biekmann | Tue, 08/03/2021 - 16:51

US startup Form Energy has revealed more information regarding its “revolutionary” iron-air battery system, which could store energy for multiple days and do so at one-tenth the cost of lithium-ion batteries. Will this tech that could easily facilitate renewable energy use in the US, Mexico and beyond live up to the hype?

Sommerville Massachusetts -based Form Energy reported its solution could offer storage for renewable energy for around 100 hours at a stupendous US$20/kWh, numbers that make the currently leading lithium-ion solution look rather bland and expensive by comparison. CEO and Co-Founder Mateo Jaramillo said that the duration “puts [the solution] in a different category" compared to other storage solutions that cannot provide energy for more than 10 hours. Nevertheless, he sees Form Energy as "complementary, not in competition" with lithium-ion storage, which will still be needed to charge and discharge energy quickly. Iron-air batteries are more suited to address day-to-day or seasonal variability for intermittent renewable energy.

Form’s technology is based on using thousands of small iron pellets, which rust when exposed to oxygen and shift back to iron when this oxygen is removed. The solution is already attracting plenty of attention: the company announced a US$200 million series D funding, spearheaded by metal industry leader ArcelorMittal. Other investors include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. The company itself has plenty of batting power too, with Jaramillo as the former leader of battery development for Tesla and MIT Professor Yet-Min Chiang among their ranks.

The company therefore has strong backing and touts a great potential solution with excellent economics. Another major benefit would be how easy iron is to access, especially compared with lithium, already identified as a potential bottleneck for the clean energy transition. But whether the project will be truly successful remains to be seen. After all, many new technologies pop up but then lose steam along the way, until they disappear completely. Currently, Form Energy claims to have its process working well under lab conditions. A 1MW pilot project in Minnesota is expected to be completed by 2023. Only after this is completed will the technology be able to truly show its potential.

For now, the hype continues to build, and for good reason. At the predicted prices, utilities around the world could very easily incorporate solid backup to renewable energies like wind and solar. While cheap to the point of breaking energy cost records, these power plants can pose significant problems for more inflexible power grids, a point that Mexico’s grid operator CENACE has repeated over the past years. Turning intermittent energy into a stable factor would have a dramatic impact, thinks Mark Jacobson, Director of the Atmosphere/Energy program at Stanford University “It would eliminate the need for any more fossil fuels, nuclear power and bioenergy for electricity faster than we thought,” he told Form Energy.

 

Cas Biekmann Cas Biekmann Journalist and Industry Analyst