Leading battery maker cuts staff, delays shipments

Source: Katherine Ling, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, September 14, 2015

A leading manufacturer of advanced grid-scale energy storage batteries has encountered a technical glitch, causing a delay in shipments and staff cuts in a further setback for the industry, which has seen many startups fail.

Ambri Inc. is one of the leaders in the race to make affordable energy storage for the grid to shore up intermittent renewables and help smooth out load. The company’s technology is a “liquid” metal battery that relies on a molten salt electrolyte — and costs about one-third of the current cost of lithium-ion batteries.

The company has had many high-profile investors, including Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures, oil company Total SA and the Pritzker family.

A faulty “robust high-temperature seal” for the battery is not working and has caused the delay of its first commercial shipments, which were originally set for later this year and early 2016, Phil Giudice, Ambri’s CEO, said in a company note. The company is working on a new design of the seal but still must rigorously test it.

The delay in the shipments has required the company to cut about one-quarter of its staff, or about 14 people, Giudice said.

“Our reduction in staff and slowed commercialization path will provide us more time to solve the engineering challenges ahead of us before we re-engage in committing to commercial deployment schedules,” he said in the note.

The company has a small manufacturing plant near Boston and was scheduled to test its technology in Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York and Alaska this year.

Giudice testified at a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing in April on the state of the advanced battery market and the importance of federal support. Ambri did some of its original research under a $7 million grant from the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program (E&E Daily, April 27).

Yet there are few resources for overcoming that second, capital-intensive “valley of death” between demonstration and commercialization, Giudice told lawmakers.

DOE has devoted significant resources to accelerating energy storage research, including the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research based at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, as well as a strong program at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.