Bill Gates Funds 'Big Battery' Startup

Charles Murray

December 13, 2011

2 Min Read
Bill Gates Funds 'Big Battery' Startup

One of the great underappreciated issues of renewable energy isn't whether seagulls are banging into turbine blades. It's whether intermittent sources of power have any real value in a world without energy storage.

But that won't be as big an issue if a new battery technology finds its way to the market. The battery, developed by a startup called Liquid Metal Battery Corp. (LMBC), could serve as a form of storage for everything from electric utilities down to single-family homes and virtually everything in between. Moreover, it has significant investors behind it, including Bill Gates.


"People love renewables," the company's founder, Donald Sadoway, who is also the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told us in an interview. "They love solar. They love wind. But both of those technologies are intermittent. And we don't need intermittent boosting of the grid. We need reliable power."

Sadoway's idea is to build "a honkin' big battery" -- a unit as large as 1,000 cubic feet that uses hundreds of cells, each the size of a pizza box. The battery's advantages are that it is cheap, can be made big, and offers high energy density. Ultimately, the company believes such a battery could fill the storage role if it drops its cost to $100/kWh, but Sadoway and the company's executives are not saying what their battery costs today.

"Our batteries will be big, and we'll get economies of scale from that size," newly appointed CEO Phil Giudice told Design News. "And if we can provide cost-effective storage, we could have thousands of these being used by a single big utility."

Apparently, important people agree with that vision. Gates, who had reportedly seen some of Sadoway's online lectures at MIT, is one of two major investors in the company. The other investor is the French firm Total Group, which describes itself as a multinational energy conglomerate with 96,000 employees.

Gates has been open about his reasons for supporting the startup. Without inexpensive storage, "renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar cells will never approach the scale or affordability that is necessary," he wrote in a Web article titled "We Need a Battery Miracle."

The reason storage is so important is extraordinarily simple but often ignored. Wind turbines generate power only when the wind blows, and solar cells make power only when the sun is shining brightly. Like all other sources of power -- coal, hydro, nuclear -- the electrical current from wind and solar sources must be used instantly. With a few minor exceptions, such as pumped hydro and compressed air energy storage, utilities have few ways of storing electricity for later use.

About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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