What’s in a battery?

It is an exciting time in the energy innovations business. And I am wishing I had paid more attention in high school during physics class. It was my worst subject. I just did not know how to relate it to the real world. After a lifetime of applied physics lessons, I am actually learning how electricity works. Battery design and use has become my most recent study. Since we are building an off-grid solar house, batteries are required. Battery research has led me down many rabbit trails.


Right away I learned that lead-acid batteries have a limited life. They require regular inspection and addition of distilled water. They should not be drawn down too often or too far in stored energy. They must be recycled to keep the lead in them from being a hazard after they are no longer useful. Some innovative folks have been working on other, more environmentally-friendly options.


Nonagenarian Earl Bakken, inventor of the pacemaker, is converting his 17,000 square foot house to off-grid solar on the Big Island and getting away from diesel generators. His 176 kilowatt solar panel array will charge into a new battery type based on saltwater, not lead-acid. RES, our solar contractor is also working on his project and has taken on distribution of the new line of Aquion batteries to do his project and others. Our modest 1180 SF house will use their new S-20 batteries designed for small projects.


m100-ls81-homeThe Aquion story is innovation at its best and Dr. Jay Whitacre tells the story well in his 2012 TED talk. He worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as a post-doc after earning a Ph.D. in physics from Oberlin College. He became a senior staff scientist involved with the Mars Science Laboratory development team. His research into energy storage led him into experimentation with batteries based on using the most common elements on Earth. He invented the Aquion battery when he left JPL for a professor position at Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh in 2007.


Eight years later the battery is in production and distribution with Hawaii being an important demonstration location due to the Bakken project, a microgrid-sized application. Aquion has attracted major investors in the past two years including Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. In 2011 Gates posted a blog article entitled “We Need an Energy Miracle.” He explained in that blog the need for a low-cost energy storage system to make solar and wind technologies more useful in diverse settings. Aquion is one of several approaches that show great promise so he invested.


Aquion makes a battery with no Haz-Mat implications. It requires no maintenance such as adding water. It lasts for 10 to 20 years and can be cycled up and down thousands of times. It is more expensive than a lead-acid battery system at the start, but should not be over the total cycle of 20 years. And it will be less expensive to buy each year as sales volumes increase and production costs are reduced.


In the early 1980s I was a nature center director employing solar hot water, composting toilets and a solar greenhouse to demonstrate new technologies. Many new trends we thought would endure did not, but nature centers are a great place to demonstrate and explore new technologies that show hope for a more sustainable future for the planet. New technologies offer a good opportunity for grants funding because they are one-time purchases with a sustainability value in support of the nature center, zoo or aquarium.


Batteries never looked exciting to me before, but they do now. And I am learning some of the basic physics principles I missed in high school. If you operate a facility or home in a sunny location, take a look at the options to go off-grid and start learning more about batteries. It really is an exciting time in the energy innovations business.


-Tim Merriman







Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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