Flow in flux: Long duration batteries in fight to commercialise

Date: Mar 30, 2018

Redflow has recently turned its modular commercial-scale systems into stackable grid-scale units. Image: Redflow.

Flow batteries haven’t been around as long as lithium or lead acid batteries, but everyone, it seems, has heard of them, ever since the technology came down to earth from a NASA programme a few decades back and into ‘civilian’ and corporate hands. It’s been predicted for some time that the redox flow energy storage space will, after some turmoil and rapid consolidation, find success in providing energy storage at durations of more than four hours. This past couple of weeks have been a tale of both turmoil and success.

A cautionary tale

All the way back in 2014 as this site was just starting out, we wrote about American Vanadium, a company which at the time was essentially prospecting for ‘billions’, finding raw materials in the Nevada Desert, long before Tesla’s lithium Gigafactory was ironically chosen to be put there.

American Vanadium, which was actually incorporated in Canada, also had a sales agreement to distribute German manufacturer Gildemeister’s CellCube energy storage units, thought to be one of the first commercially available flow batteries. AV’s boss Bill Radvak was the first to blog for this site, also in 2014, on the potential of energy storage to transform New York’s energy future as CellCube demonstration units got installed for the Metropolitan Transport Authority. The CEO also managed to get onto various tv spots to tout the advantages of flow batteries.

As we speak, American Vanadium is no longer called American Vanadium. It’s called Monitor Ventures, and its website says it is “seeking a new business venture that has significant growth potential”. So it turned out the dream of building a vertically integrated company to revolutionise energy storage – and don’t forget that never mind the Gigafactory, this was before Powerwall was even launched – built on a technology that even now in 2018 is still finding its feet in the market, didn’t work out for Radvak and co.

So is this just another cautionary tale in the predicted narrative of a bloodbath of consolidations in the redox flow energy storage sector? Well, it doesn’t end there. Gildemeister Energy Storage too, spun out from conglomerate DMG Mori and close to a sale to AV in 2016 before terminating the potential agreement in April 2017, has since been taken over by Stina Resources. The CellCube producing entity will now be known, under Stina’s ownership, as Enerox and will be incorporated in Austria.

And guess what? Stina Resources is also prospecting for vanadium in Nevada with the aim of “becoming North America’s first vertically integrated producer of vanadium and vanadium electrolytes for the energy storage industry”. They are not the only ones. Energy-Storage.News has reported on various recent vanadium mining and exploration ventures, with one US startup, StorEn, and Australian mining company Multicom Resources striking up a “vertically integrated supply chain model” around StorEn’s vanadium flow batteries.

Rumours of a vanadium (pitcured) ‘gold rush’ may have been somewhat exaggerated – at least at this stage in the market’s development. Image: Wikimedia user: High res images of chemical elements.

Navigant: Flow could be fastest-growing electrochemical storage tech in next 10 years

Flow batteries will be a “major competitor” to lithium for both front-of-meter and behind-the-meter applications “in the next several years”, Ian McClenny, a research associate at US-based Navigant Research says.

“In fact, we have them as our fastest growing electrochemical energy storage device over the next 10 years. That being said, there are short term hurdles,” McClenny says.

Fundamentally its still a question of money. We saw this week that VIZn Energy, considered a leader in flow battery systems, has furloughed all 70 staff as one of the company’s main investors was forced to pull out. McClenny admits that capex remains higher on flow than Li-ion and then cost over lifetime – and lifetime itself – is contingent on how the asset is used. Getting the utilisation of four hours or more energy storage could be key, but markets at the moment are not favouring those types of applications.

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