Form Energy’s Reversible Rusting Iron-Air Battery

Image by Kittipong Jirasukhanont from Getty Images

Innovative Battery Technology: Reversible Rusting Power

Form Energy emerged as a startup in 2017 with ambitious plans to create an iron-air battery capable of providing days of on-demand clean power. Their vision was to address the upcoming issue of intermittent renewable energy sources displacing fossil fuels on the grid. While lithium-ion batteries could partially fill the gap, they were limited to short durations. Form Energy aimed to develop a grid-scale energy storage solution lasting several days, crucial for deep decarbonization. With appealing project renderings and the promise of a 100-hour storage capacity, the company managed to secure nearly $1 billion in funding, including support from notable investors like Bill Gates. They claimed their iron-air battery would be cost-competitive with conventional power plants, costing less than one-tenth of lithium-ion batteries.

At the outset, little information was available about the real-world performance of the battery, and the marketing claims were met with some skepticism, which is typical for emerging technologies. However, six years after its inception, Form Energy is now ready to demonstrate its technology on a larger scale. The company has secured deals with risk-averse utilities such as Xcel Energy, Southern Company, and Great River Energy, and they have begun construction on a commercial-scale battery plant in West Virginia.

Form Energy’s CEO, Mateo Jaramillo, downplays these milestones as true successes since the company has not yet implemented their technology in practical applications. Nevertheless, the significant progress made in advancing this critical technology is undeniable. Jaramillo acknowledges the years of hard work and genuine developments in the battery industry, expressing his excitement about seeing real progress rather than just talk.

Form Energy didn’t pioneer the iron-air battery technology; its roots trace back over half a century. In the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a study by Westinghouse to explore iron-air battery applications for transportation, but they didn’t find suitable use cases.

At its core, Form Energy’s battery operates on the principle of reversible rusting. The battery comprises an iron anode, resembling a car’s brake pad, and an air-breathing cathode, both submerged in an electrolyte water bath with a permeable separator. When the iron comes into contact with oxygen and air, it undergoes oxidation, commonly known as rusting. During this oxidation process, electrons are released and transferred to the grid, supplying electricity when demand exceeds supply. Conversely, when there’s excess power on the grid, the process is reversed, and electrons flow back in, releasing oxygen and returning the iron to its metallic state.

However, Form Energy doesn’t solely view itself as a battery manufacturer; rather, it considers its focus to be on implementing comprehensive systems rather than just specific chemistries, as explained by Jaramillo.

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