Dan Haar: United Technologies Battery Could Upend The Power Business

May 15, 2016

A few years ago, when the parent company owned businesses that made fuel cells and jet-based power plants, scientists at the United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford worked on a rechargeable battery that could, in theory at least, store electricity not just for large applications, and not just for buildings and factories, but for the whole grid.

The idea was to make it not just work, but work in a unit that could be manufactured and sold at a price that made sense.

Now that theory is proving true with a battery that might change the game for solar and wind power, and for electric grids in developing nations. The technology, using a liquid solution of vanadium and sulfuric acid in large vats, can discharge 1 million watts or more for as long as eight hours, then do it again and again, for years.

UTC has long since exited the fuel cell and power business. But a team led by Mike Perry, an electrochemical engineer who moved over from the fuel cell division in 2008, never stopped working on the battery idea.

Now UTC has licensed the technology to a development firm in Massachusetts called VIONX Energy, which is taking the technology to the market with commercial sales expected later this year or in 2017.

Vionx Energy Vanadium Redox Flow Battery Technology

Utilizing a breakthrough optimization invented by United Technologies Corporation, Vionx Energy’s energy storage systems employ Vanadium Redox Flow chemistry.

“We’re going to hybridize the grid in the way that a Prius hybridizes storage and a power plant,” Perry said.

A hybrid car such as a Prius uses both an engine and a battery that stores and discharges power depending on what the driver does — thus the word hybrid. For now, the folks who run the electric grid must make sure at any moment that there’s enough generation online to satisfy demand. That means running highly inefficient plants at peak times, like weekday afternoons in July — and it’s not OK to count on solar or wind power because clouds or calm can shut those sources down.

So, what Perry is talking about is nothing less than a holy grail for electric grids. With a series of large-scale batteries, utilities and large users can take some of their low-cost power — and some of their alternative power such as solar and wind — and hold onto it until it’s needed. It’s a way of smoothing out the flow of effort.

“Now your power plants can all run at high efficiency,” Perry said.

And in sunny corners of the world that don’t have access to natural gas for efficient power plants, it could be a way to build a working grid using much more solar power, saving the high cost and pollution from diesel and coal to produce power.

The search for a workable, grid-scale battery system isn’t new. Giant batteries have been around for years, but typically with a discharge of only a half-hour or so, and at very high cost.

UTC’s version is a so-called vanadium redox flow battery, meaning it uses liquid vanadium solutions that do not degrade over time, unlike the solid batteries that wear out after a couple of thousand uses. That’s not a new idea, either.

What’s new is the “architecture” of the battery, especially the design and materials in the crucial cell stack that use an exchange of ions to create current. Perry’s group has applied for more than 30 patents (and won seven so far). Their research was backed by $3 million in U.S. Department of Energy grants and the battery was named one of the top 100 innovations of 2013 by R&D magazine.

“It wasn’t just one ‘aha’ concept,” Perry said. “What we were able to do is improve the performance of that cell stack by magnitudes.”

Orphan Technology

Deep in the cavernous and secretive UT Research Center near Pratt & Whitney and Rentschler Field, a small version of the vanadium flow battery lives in a back lot, in a 20-foot metal shipping container, with two, 500-gallon plastic vats of solution and a machined cell stack about the size of a dishwasher. It’s good for just about 15,000 watts, and that’s the largest version UT researchers made.

Scaling it up is the job of VIONX, but that was the whole point of the research — making a battery that could work at massive size. Woburn, Mass.-based VIONX (pronounced vi-ON-ix), is about to make a demonstration system of twin, 500-kilowatt units for National Grid, the Massachusetts utility, alongside wind and solar generation. Each unit will have 57,500 gallons of solution.

To get to this point, UT Research built a prototype, which still sits in a room behind a black-and-white plastic shower curtain, minus the stack, which went to VIONX. Down a few hallways, in Perry’s labs, tiny versions of the battery sit on shelves, their cells in plastic boxes, with red and black wires all around. Each was used to test something different.

The cells resemble the stacks of metal plates in a fuel cell, for good reason. This battery is a descendant of the technology that was used to power the Apollo modules, which is how UTC got into fuel cells to begin with.

So it’s Connecticut technology at its core. But when UTC broke up its power business, then sold the South Windsor-based fuel cell company, which is now owned by Doosan, that left the flow battery research as an orphan. It was clear UTC would need an outside partner to make the product.

A small company called Premium Power was working on a different kind of flow battery, using zinc bromide. That company’s investors brought in David Vieau as an adviser, and when it pivoted to license the UTC battery, it changed its name to VIONX and hired Vieau as CEO.

It might seem odd for a giant global manufacturer to license a product to a development firm. But that makes sense if the big company has a breakthrough in an area where it doesn’t have operations.

UTC is among the owners of VIONX. “They are the research arm for our group,” Vieau said. “They’ve been a great partner. I wasn’t sure going in because they’re a large corporation.”

Spinoff Model

The actual manufacture is done by a Florida contractor, and VIONX, with 40 direct employees, is working with Siemens, the German technology giant, on some of the marketing.

This type of partnership is a growing model for UTC and companies like it that have traditionally used in-house labs to serve their own businesses. It’s similar to the goal at universities, to turn research into commercial partnerships and spinoffs.

Could UTC have compelled VIONX to locate in Connecticut? That’s what this state would have liked to see, but it’s a balancing act of moving costs, investor location and other factors. We’d like to see it for Yale and UTC projects but we don’t want to see Connecticut startups shut out of technology coming out of, say, Harvard or AT&T.

In fact, there was a discussion of moving VIONX to Connecticut, which is also home to Starwood Energy, a large investor. But, Vieau said, moving and replacing the staff expertise in Massachusetts would have cost valuable development time

The question now is whether these batteries can fulfill forecasts of multiple billions of dollars in annual sales, at a current cost of about $500 per kilowatt-hour of capacity. “A large part of the game that we’ve got is to get people to understand that you can buy a reliable, durable eight-hour battery that’s going to hold its charge and last for 20 years.”

VIONX, by itself, “could be a billion-dollar-plus business,” Perry said.

UTC would see ongoing licensing revenues and fees from continual development, in addition to gains from its part ownership with the company. And, he said, it could end up as more than the inventor and research partner. “We are actively talking about putting a vanadium flow battery into UTC facilities,” Perry said.

Now UTC has licensed the technology to a development firm in Massachusetts called VIONX Energy, which is taking the technology to the market with commercial sales expected later this year or in 2017.