CMU professor’s battery could help make renewables more affordable
The falling price of renewable energy systems, such as solar panels, bodes well for consumers, the environment and manufacturers, said Jay Whitacre, founder of a hybrid battery company in Lawrenceville.
A professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, Whitacre founded Aquion Energy Inc., which makes and sells the Aqueous Hybrid Ion battery, an environmentally-friendly and cost-efficient energy storage system that was developed in Whitacre’s labs at CMU in 2008.
The Squirrel Hill resident’s scientific work recently brought him national recognition in the form of the 2015 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, which recognizes exceptional inventors and aims to inspire young people to pursue creative careers through invention.
A married father of two children, Whitacre, 43, spoke with the Tribune-Review about the growth of his company and the future of renewable energy.
Trib:How did Aquion start?
Whitacre: I’m the chief technology officer of Aquion, which was founded in 2010, and a professor at CMU. I invented the patent. It’s my baby. We worked at CMU for about a year and a half and that got results that could spin off a company. And I had some really strong support in the venture community. It was an evolution, though, between, thinking that this could be something, to talking to people to get support, to making it happen.
Trib: How does the Aquion technolgy work?
Whitacre: We make batteries for stationary applications. They store energy produced from renewable sources, such as solar panel systems. The batteries are modular, so they can be stacked to store more energy. Let’s say you have a solar panel on your roof and you want to watch TV at night. An Aquion battery could power several TVs in a house, or several batteries could power an entire house. The cost of solar panels has come down significantly in the past decade, so people who have been using other forms of power are starting to use those, and now they want to use them at night. The economics of renewables have become more favorable.
Trib: What makes Aquion unique?
Whitacre: Many people are creating different energy systems. We are the only people doing it this way — completely environmentally benign. We are competing with other batteries made with more well-known chemistries.
Trib: What are your biggest challenges?
Whitacre: Manufacturing is hard in general. Manufacturing a new product that no one’s ever made before is a huge challenge. Our factory is in Westmoreland County. The past three years have been focused on getting us up to large scale so we can meet the demand, and producing this new product. That involves understanding and developing different markets, expanding and knowing who we’re selling to, buyers, etc.
Trib: To whom are you selling?
Whitacre: Our customers are distributors — people who put together solar and other renewable systems elsewhere. Distributors sell them to residences, companies, townships or other places where renewable energy is being used and they want help with it. We also have what’s called our Aquion Global Partners Program, a network of preferred, Aquion-certified dealers, distributors and other companies in the energy management sectors.
Trib: What are your short-term goals?
Whitacre: We want to keep growing. We want to have significantly more shipped product. We have a new product line, which is the basic generation for recurrent products. It has higher power in and out and a slightly better price point per kilowatt hour. As we move forward, we’ll really ramp up production next year to big scale.
Trib: What are your long-term goals?
Whitacre: One of our battery units is between 2 to 2.5 kilowatt hours. Our market right now is small-scale, micro-grade renewables. One of the goals is to get to such a large scale that we are able to sell to utility-scale storage applications.
Trib: How have Aquion and its product been received?
Whitacre: I’m really surprised by how fast it’s going. Typically these kinds of things take a decade or more. And we’ve done this in a short period of time. That is surprising and really gratifying. We’re sold out for the year, which means we have booked all of the sales set in our production quota and we have sold all the units that we are able to make. The company’s sales will be between $5 million and $10 million this year, and they will be more next year.
Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or [email protected].