Charged for the Long Haul

By Nick Houtman

The promise of renewable energy stems from a simple fact: When the wind blows, a river flows and the sun shines, electrons move. But between the devices that harness nature’s power and electricity’s final destination stands the battery, a critical but troubled technology. We need batteries to store energy until it’s needed, but like people, they decline with age.

At eChemion’s lab in the Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Institute, Kevin Lewis, left, director of operations, and Jacob Tenhoff, senior lab engineer, are developing longer lasting redox batteries. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

Now eChemion, a Corvallis startup company, has leveraged research in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University to extend battery life and to reduce cost. The anticipated worldwide expansion of renewable energy systems is expected to generate annual sales in this market of $2.7 billion by 2020.

These are not the batteries that power a cell phone or flashlight. eChemion specializes in energy storage systems known as redox batteries. They consist of stacks of electrodes (the charged surfaces that enable batteries to transfer electrons) in a tank filled with a liquid. “These systems are used in a variety of energy applications, from utility networks to the side of a house,” says Bill Kesselring, the company’s CEO. “They store energy from solar and wind or other sources. They can be as big as several shipping containers or as small as a refrigerator.”

The company emerged from work by Alex Bistrika, a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering who was advised by Alex Yokochi, former OSU engineering professor now at Baylor University. Bistrika’s success in exploring the chemical and electrical properties of graphite, a form of pure carbon, paved the way for the company’s technology, says Kesselring.

“The initial research created an understanding of what’s needed in redox flow batteries and the energy storage and power generation business. What we’re experts at is taking cheap graphitic material, designing an application-specific treatment and making it perform equal to or better than the state-of-the-art, highly designed graphitic material that’s out there. And we do it for less than half the cost.”

As a client of the Advantage Accelerator, eChemion focused on what it was particularly good at doing and how it could meet the needs of utilities and other potential customers. The company is manufacturing products in OSU’s ATAMI (Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Institute) building at the HP campus and looking for opportunities to grow.

“If it weren’t for ATAMI and the Advantage program, we wouldn’t be here,” says Kesselring. “We’re like a family. We participate in roundtable discussions with other startups. We help each other. We all want to see each other succeed.”