UNM Rainforest Innovations

A new startup company is working to develop aluminum-based, low-cost energy storage systems for electric vehicles and microgrids. Founded by University of New Mexico inventor Shuya Wei, Flow Aluminum, Inc. could directly compete with ionic lithium-ion batteries and provide a broad range of advantages. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, Flow Aluminum’s product would not require rare Earth materials, the materials are not flammable, and they could store more energy while also being lower-cost.

The new company has utilized local and out-of-state business accelerator programs and is currently partnering with Polaris Battery Labs out of Oregon to develop the company’s first prototype.

To read more, see Kevin Robinson-Avila’s October 2, 2023 article, “UNM startup to market aluminum-based batteries,” below and on the Albuquerque Journal website here: https://www.abqjournal.com/business/unm-startup-to-market-aluminum-based-batteries/article_0732179e-5d8c-11ee-bc0f-63e05943952d.html

See also Jesse Schwartz’s October 11 article, “U New Mexico start-up developing aluminum-based batteries as alternative to lithium-ion,” on Tech Transfer Central’s website here: https://techtransfercentral.com/2023/10/11/u-new-mexico-start-up-developing-aluminum-based-batteries-as-alternative-to-lithium-ion/

UNM startup to market aluminum-based batteries

By Kevin Robinson-Avila

October 2, 2023

A University of New Mexico technology breakthrough could soon allow aluminum-based batteries to directly compete with the iconic lithium-ion batteries that today power up everything from cell phones to electric vehicles.

A newly-formed Albuquerque startup, Flow Aluminum Inc., is now working to take that novel technology out of UNM labs and into the marketplace, with help from local and out-of-state business accelerator programs, and with manufacturing assistance from Oregon-based Polaris Battery Labs, which is now developing the company’s first commercial aluminum-based battery prototype.

It’s a tall order to transform laboratory-proven technology into a viable commercial product that could eventually be scaled up for use in things like energy-storage systems for the electric grid. But if successful, it could substantially lower costs for end users, while offering a broad range of advantages over lithium-ion batteries, said Flow Aluminum co-founder and CEO Tom Chepucavage.

For one thing, Flow Aluminum’s product would avoid the need for rare Earth minerals used in lithium-ion batteries, which face chronic supply constraints and environmental concerns, Chepucavage said. It would also eliminate the fire hazards that plague lithium-ion batteries, because none of the materials used in these batteries — which combine aluminum metal, aluminum derivatives and carbon dioxide together to discharge electricity — are flammable.

The batteries can also store much more energy than lithium-ion ones, and they’re long-lasting, according to the company.

One additional benefit: they can absorb carbon dioxide from the air, potentially offering double bang for the buck by both storing energy and capturing CO2 for sequestration.

“We’ve developed a high-performance, low-cost, non-flammable, Aluminum-CO2 battery alternative,” Chepucavage told the Journal. “It’s low cost due to a simpler supply chain and lack of need for fire suppression. And uniquely, it operates as a direct air capture system as well, sequestering carbon.”

Flow Aluminum is still an early-stage company that formed barely six months ago, and it faces an uphill path to commercial sales, since the technology has yet to be tested and deployed outside of the labs at UNM’s School of Engineering.

But it’s generated significant enthusiasm among organizations working to bring new battery and carbon-capture technology to market. The Global CO2 Initiative at the University of Michigan, for example, invited Flow Aluminum into its technology accelerator assistance program in September to help the company forge commercial pathways to scale and grow.

The U.S. Department of Energy-backed REACH Energy Accelerator in Colorado also selected Flow Aluminum to participate in its 12-month program earlier this year.

And the company is now forming an advisory board with industry experts to provide guidance going forward.

Kevin Bassalleck — president of the utility-scale solar development and battery storage company GridWorks in Albuquerque — will be joining the board.

“Flow Aluminum’s technology has real promise and potential for many different industry sectors, including electric vehicles, stationary energy storage systems, and possibly even aviation,” Bassalleck told the Journal. “It’s early days, and there are challenges ahead with fund raising, prototyping and proving out the technology on a commercial scale. But if they’re successful, it’s very exciting.”

NSF-funded research

The impetus to create an aluminum-based battery initially came from Shuya Wei, a chemical engineering professor who joined UNM in 2019.

Wei, who graduated from Cornell University and did post-doctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, previously studied the possibilities for developing next-generation batteries beyond lithium-ion before coming to New Mexico.

Then, in 2021, she joined a team of researchers from four universities that won a four-year, $6 million National Science Foundation grant to develop technologies to capture carbon while also producing and storing electricity. That provided needed funding for UNM’s aluminum-CO2 battery research.

UNM doctoral student and Flow Aluminum Chief Technology Officer Chris Fetrow worked with Wei from the start on the electrochemical processes to combine aluminum metal and aluminum derivatives with CO2 gas to create the energy storage and power discharge capacity needed in a non-lithium battery. That culminated in a laboratory prototype, or “coin cell” battery, which looks like the thumb-sized, flat, round batteries that consumers today use in all types of devices.

Wei, Fetrow and other team members published their work on the patent-pending technology last year in the scientific journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

“We proved the battery works and provided the evidence to announce that in the research journal,” Fetrow told the Journal.

It’s breakthrough technology that builds on research that only began a few years ago.

“Studying the possibility of aluminum batteries has only been underway for about five to seven years,” Fetrow said. “…We still need to do more foundational (laboratory) research to fully explain how some of the chemical reactions inside the battery actually work.”

The NSF funding is financing that ongoing research.

“There are tons of battery companies trying to commercialize all kinds of battery chemistry that’s not based on lithium-ion, and it’s not an easy thing,” Wei told the Journal. “But in our battery chemistry, we’re not using any expensive materials, just aluminum and CO2, and we already have the prototype in a coin-cell battery. We’re still doing research now on the potential limiting factors in this electrochemistry to improve the stability and capacity for commercial applications and make it comparable with lithium-ion batteries.”

Meanwhile, Flow Aluminum — which officially launched last May — is now simultaneously seeking venture investment to finance commercial development, since the UNM team has already proven the battery’s fundamental capabilities in the lab.

The company expects Oregon-based prototyping firm Polaris to produce a first commercial aluminum battery within six months to power up drones — a small-scale application that Flow Aluminum is targeting for its initial market.

But to scale the battery up for broader, large-scale applications in things like EVs or energy-storage systems for grids will likely take years.

“There’s still a long way to go for manufacturing and commercialization,” Wei said. “For now, we’re focusing on the science and initial applications.”

Still, the technology is already generating a lot of interest among industry representatives and investors, given the aluminum-CO2 battery’s proven potential as an alternative to lithium-ion batteries, which have significant limitations as the world transitions to large-scale battery deployment to electrify transportation and to provide back-up energy storage for solar, wind and other renewable generation systems.

Problems with lithium-ion 

Lithium-ion batteries have been around for decades. Today they provide the dominant rechargeable technology used in practically everything, from mobile consumer devices to electric scooters, bikes and cars.

That’s because lithium is an excellent material for energy storage, absorbing a lot of electrons when users charge the battery. It then efficiently releases that stored electricity when interacting with other minerals that are contained in the batteries to produce a chemical reaction to allow the power to flow out, or discharge.

They’re also long-lasting. The storing capacity of the lithium decreases slightly with every discharge and recharge, eventually becoming too inefficient to continue using. But consumers can get a lot of mileage from them before having to change the battery.

There are, however, many problems with lithium-ion batteries, beginning with the materials used to create them, which, apart from the lithium itself, generally include cobalt, nickel and manganese. Those are “rare Earth,” or critical minerals, that pose severe supply-chain constraints because mining and refining operations are concentrated in other countries, such as China.

The mining and processing also creates environmental concerns, and, in the case of cobalt, labor-related issues associated with mines in Africa.

Then there’s the problem of fire danger. Lithium-ion batteries, which use flammable materials, can spontaneously ignite from manufacturing defects, mishandling, damage and even aging. And they’re prone to “thermal runaway,” or overheating, that can cause a chain reaction in battery systems, particularly in large battery-storage projects connected to the grid.

In mid-September, for example, a fire erupted inside a solar battery-storage container at the Valley Center Energy Storage Facility in California, which provides power to San Diego Gas & Electric. The fire forced the evacuation of homes and businesses within a quarter mile of the facility, and a shelter-in-place order for anyone a half-mile from the site.

Consumer products have also ignited numerous fires, including on airplanes. They’re becoming more common given the ubiquitous deployment of lithium-ion batteries in nearly everything. In fact, in 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration banned them from being checked in luggage that’s placed in the cargo hold.

Beyond those issues, it’s a major challenge for industry to scale-up the energy storage potential of lithium-ion batteries, which is needed to allow EV cars to travel longer distances, or for grid-connected systems to store more power for longer periods. The scale-up adds significant weight to the batteries, largely because the lithium itself only accounts for a small portion of the total mass of the battery, with the other minerals and mechanisms adding significant weight. And that, in turn, can substantially increase costs when scaling up the batteries, while also creating logistical problems, especially in EVs.

Bassalleck of GridWorks said that’s a particularly daunting challenge for battery-storage systems, which are critical to support the transition from fossil fuels to intermittent renewable energy to provide continuous power when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

On large projects, the battery-storage systems are contained in massive enclosures that look like shipping containers, which are then lined up in rows. Developers can add more containers to increase energy storage capacity.

Manufacturers could also build bigger containers, but that’s a major problem, because they weigh so much that developers struggle to ship and install them, significantly increasing costs.

“There are limits to how much you can send on a flatbed, multi-axel trailer,” Bassalleck said. “Some batteries we install are now approaching 90,000 pounds. That’s a massive amount of weight — like transporting a Boeing 747 — and you need huge cranes to lift these things and install them out in remote areas in the middle of nowhere.”

The solution is to increase the amount of energy-storage capacity in the batteries themselves without increasing the weight, Bassalleck said. But that’s been a huge challenge with lithium-ion batteries, encouraging industry to develop alternative battery chemistries that could increase power without changing the size of the system.

That’s one of the key advantages that Flow Aluminum’s technology could potentially provide.

“At the energy-storage level, the aluminum-CO2 batteries provide several times higher energy-density compared with a lithium-ion battery of the same weight and size, at least at the lab-bench scale,” Bassalleck said. “If it can be successfully scaled for commercial deployment, that could save industry a lot of money.”

Flow Aluminum technology

The UNM research team says lab testing has shown the aluminum-CO2 batteries can store and discharge twice as much energy, or power, as a lithium-ion one of the same weight and size.

That reflects the energy-storage capacity of the aluminum metal, plus the absence of the weighty minerals and mechanisms that lithium-ion batteries contain, Fetrow said.

The aluminum metal absorbs electricity when charging, and then, when combined with CO2 gas, the chemical reaction allows the electrons to flow out, or discharge. An aluminum derivative also provides an additional catalyst to speed the process, and a liquid electrolyte — called an “ionic liquid” — efficiently moves the ions and electrons around in the battery.

That electrochemical process allows Flow Aluminum batteries to store more energy and provide a powerful discharge of electricity. And, in the process, the batteries lose only a fraction of their energy storage and discharge capacity, basically on a par with the efficiency losses seen in lithium-ion batteries, Fetrow said.

Company CEO Chepucavage called that “unrestricted depth of discharge,” which makes the Flow Aluminum batteries more powerful than lithium-ion ones, and long-lasting as well.

“Unlike traditional batteries that experience degradation when deeply discharged, our batteries maintain their performance and longevity, allowing users to extract maximum energy from each cycle,” Chepucavage said. “This unique feature enhances the overall efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the battery system, ensuring optimal utilization of stored energy.”

Apart from high performance and long-lasting characteristics, the battery eliminates the use of rare Earth minerals, creating abundant supply chains while significantly lower manufacturing costs based on relatively inexpensive materials.

And it sidesteps the environmental issues connected to lithium-ion batteries. In fact, since aluminum is easily recycled, the company plans to rely largely on recycled materials in the manufacturing process.

“The battery is made of common things,” Fetrow said. “Aluminum is the third most-abundant material in the Earth’s crust, and it recycles very cleanly, creating a captive supply chain. The other parts of the battery are also common and much less environmentally damaging to get than the minerals used in lithium-ion batteries.”

In addition, Flow Aluminum technology wipes away fire danger, since the battery contains no flammable materials.

“We could take a blowtorch to the battery with no ignition,” Chepucavage said.

It also works in extreme temperatures. Laboratory testing shows normal operation at 40 degrees below Fahrenheit and at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the company.

Then there’s the additional benefit of carbon capture, enabled by the battery’s ionic liquid electrolyte, which can absorb CO2 from the air.

That could allow Flow Aluminum to develop to two different battery options, including a “sealed” system with all materials enclosed inside, or an “open format” whereby the battery stores and discharges electricity while also pulling carbon directly from the air, Fetrow said. The open-air architecture could be used on grid-tied battery-storage systems, allowing a solar array or wind farm to charge the system up while it simultaneously absorbs CO2.

Commercial challenges

The company is now aggressively pursuing industry partnerships and venture investors to pursue those market opportunities.

It raised an initial, $20,000 round of angel investment in August, and it’s now raising $1.4 million in seed capital that it hopes to close on in early 2024, Chepucavage said.

Local and out-of-state business accelerators are assisting in those efforts. The DOE’s REACH Energy Accelerator in Colorado helped connect the company with Polaris Battery Labs to develop the first commercial prototype that will be used on drones, and the University of Michigan could help Flow Aluminum connect with manufacturing partners in Michigan to work on larger commercial systems for EVs and grid-tied energy storage, Chepucavage said.

The University of Michigan’s Global CO2 Initiative will also join Flow Aluminum in a panel discussion on Oct. 5 at UNM’s Rainforest Innovations center Downtown to showcase the promise and potential of the company’s technology in an effort to drum up support among potential investors and industry experts.

Rainforest Innovations, meanwhile — which manages all of UNM’s tech-transfer initiatives — helped Flow Aluminum obtain patent-pending status for its technology, which the company licensed from UNM early this year. In addition, Fetrow and other members of the research team participated in UNM’s 10-week faculty and student-focused business accelerator last year. And, in spring 2022, they participated in the Rainforest’s “Pitch Deck” startup competition, attracting significant investor interest after winning the first-place $10,000 prize.

The company has since been accepted into the Clean Energy Resilience and Growth, or CERG, accelerator program run by the Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University. And, in late September, Arrowhead selected Flow Aluminum to participate in Arrowhead’s Venture Funding Sprint program and the associated Pitch Competition connected to it, which will take place in October and November.

Flow Aluminum aims to begin generating initial revenue next year, after the first Polaris prototypes are ready. The company chose drones for its initial target market because it requires a small, compact battery that’s simpler to develop than larger battery systems, and because it’s easier to connect with companies in that sector than with automobile companies or large power-industry players.

“It’s a more fragmented market with a lot of smaller companies, and that makes access easier,” Fetrow said. “That can help us to start generating revenue a lot faster.”

Still, the challenges ahead are significant, said Abbas Akhil, a former Sandia National Laboratories engineer who worked on battery technology and energy storage for decades.

The company is trying to break into a well-established market where many other large industry players are also working to create alternative, next-generation battery systems.

“The scientific reasoning behind their technology is sound, based on laboratory research, development and testing,” Akhil told the Journal. “But they need to actually show it works when applying it at a larger scale outside the lab. There’s like a hundred different chemistries that researchers can create for rechargeable batteries, but they need to show that this electrochemical process works as they say in the commercial world, and that the economics of manufacturing and deploying it make make sense for industry.”

It’s imperative to get away from rare Earth minerals and develop scalable alternatives to lithium-ion batteries, said Lisa Kuuttila, Rainforest Innovations CEO and UNM’s chief economic development officer. That makes Flow Aluminum’s technology particularly compelling.

“Many companies are working on that and this could be one of several technologies — maybe the leading one — but we don’t know yet, because we need to see if it can be scaled up for commercial use,” Kuuttila told the Journal. “But it’s a ground-breaking technology that’s high-risk and high-reward. It has a lot of potential, but we’ll have to see how it stacks up.”

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