The workspace at Liquid Metal Battery’s small basement headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looks more like a machine shop than a high-tech lab you might expect from a spin-off from MIT.
In the place of vacuum chambers and rows of sealed glove boxes sit a large bandsaw, a drill press, and a simple welding station. In another corner sits an ordinary kiln like you might find in a pottery studio. Although the company’s technology is based on advanced chemistry, the batteries look rudimentary: thick-walled steel cans that the researchers fill with powder scooped from large buckets and barrels.
The simplicity is by design. The company’s goal is to make batteries so inexpensive that they can cheaply store wind power generated at night when it is often windy but power demand is low, for use during times of peak demand during the day. It has attracted millions of dollars in early-stage investments from Bill Gates, the French oil company Total, and the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy.
Liquid Metal, which was founded in 2010 but only started operating in earnest last fall when it expanded from seven to 17 employees, is one of several new companies hoping to learn from the challenges faced by an earlier wave of clean-energy startups. Clean-energy companies have struggled in part because incumbent technologies—such as fossil-fuel power plants, gas-powered cars, and even conventional solar cells—are so cheap, and because utilities favor established technologies.
Some earlier battery startups focused on, say, a promising electrode material discovered in a lab, only to discover that manufacturing the material erased much of the cost savings that the material promised. The new group of startups, which includes a spin-off from A123 Systems called 24 M and another called Aquion, are taking a close look at manufacturing costs from the beginning. Liquid Metal has also identified markets that can allow it to initially afford high costs until large-scale production makes its batteries more affordable.
Liquid Metal Battery is so named because the powders its researchers pour into its battery cells are heated to the melting point, when they naturally segregate themselves into three layers, the positive and negative electrodes, and the electrolyte that separates them. These now-liquid materials are highly conductive, so the batteries can be discharged and charged quickly, accepting charge one millisecond and returning it the next, if necessary, to help stabilize fluctuations of supply and demand on the power grid.