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Mysterious 'aqueous air battery system' to be deployed in Minnesota

As Great River Energy, Minnesota's second-largest electric utility, transitions away from coal, there's secretive new science on its horizon.

As Great River Energy, Minnesota's second-largest electric utility, transitions away from coal, there's secretive new science on its horizon. Lyndon Anderson, Great River Energy

Form Energy, a startup out in Massachusetts, is reportedly on to some cutting-edge stuff.

The company, which is funded by, among others, Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures, is developing an ultra-low-cost, ultra-long-lasting battery. Right now, a typical lithium ion battery can’t store much more than four hours of juice. Form’s talking about batteries that would last 150 hours. What’s more, the company wants to deploy it right here in Minnesota.

For the better part of a year, Form has been contracting with Great River Energy, a not-for-profit electric co-op and our state’s second-largest electric utility. The plan is to deploy this brand-new battery at a new facility to be built in Cambridge, Minnesota, by 2023.

“I think it will help better integrate renewable resources like wind and solar,” Great River spokesperson Therese LaCanne says. As these plans are being laid, Great River has been making its own ambitious moves to replace coal generation with renewables like wind, including shutting down Coal Creek Station, a 1,151-megawatt power station in North Dakota, by 2023.

A longer-lasting battery could hold onto energy better in poorer weather conditions—those extreme heat and cold spells the Midwest is best known for.

“Long-duration storage also provides an excellent hedge against volatile energy prices,” Great River Veep Jon Brekke said in a statement last week.

The one-megawatt storage facility will be connected to Great River’s grid, though it's not known what the facility will look like.

In fact, there’s a lot that isn’t known yet about the partnership in general, in particular this miracle battery. According to what little information Form has released to the public so far, it’s an “aqueous air battery system” that “leverages some of the safest, cheapest, most abundant materials on the planet.” It is also, says LaCanne, “proprietary.”

Form has been historically secretive about the makeup of its products since it burst onto the scene in 2017, but it's caught the attention and financial support of not only The Engine, an MIT accelerator program, but $40 million from Breakthrough and other investors, and another $4 million from the United States Department of Energy.

This battery is no exception. It’s been described as “mysterious” by various energy publications, and a few snarky commenters on Reddit joked that for all we knew, those “cheap,” “abundant materials” could also be found in Soylent Green.

If you want, you can certainly take a crack at the patent, which is located here.