A Decade In Development, Liquid-Metal Batteries By Ambri May Soon Change The Energy Storage Game
Lithium-ion batteries have some problems. They lose efficiency when the weather is too hot or cold. They lose the ability to fully charge over time. They can catch fire. And they are reliant on a China-controlled supply chain of critical minerals.
But even with those drawbacks, lithium-ion has become the dominant player in the painfully slow growing business of providing battery storage for renewable energy.
There are many new players in battery town seeking to take market share from lithium. One company that has been working on the problem for a decade now is Ambri, which has been largely funded by Bill Gates. I learned about Ambri because it was the counterparty to the antimony supply agreement with Perpetua Resources that I wrote about in August.
That led to a chat with Ambri Executive Chairman Dan Leff and Chief Commercial Officer Adam Briggs. “Ambri is a 10-year-old company that spun out of research from Professor Donald Sadoway’s laboratory at MIT,” Leff told me as we kicked off our discussion. “And it was the Masters and PhD thesis work of David Bradwell. They formed a liquid metal battery company after receiving one of the first ARPA-E grants for the MIT research, and received company funding from Bill Gates and Total.”
Leff was approached about 3-1/2 years ago by the Bill Gates investment team to join the company’s board to help them assess if the company could be brought from the lab to the market at scale. Briggs, who has extensive management and commercial experience in the battery storage arena, also joined Ambri around the same time.
“We assessed that we needed to do three things in order to bring the company effectively from the lab to the market at scale,” Leff said. “Number one was to retire technology risk. Number two was to build a commercial pipeline of opportunities by asking the market, ‘if we build this product at this price and performance point, would you buy at scale?’”
The Ambri team was able to tick off the first two boxes and then went to work on addressing the third key goal: Raising adequate capital to take the company to commercial scale.
Leff said the building of a strong syndicate of investors is critical. “While the company has largely been funded over the most recent several years by Bill Gates, that’s not their team’s investment model,” he told me. “Their model is to build a strong syndicate, and we have been grateful to assemble a world-class group of investors with this round, led by Paulson & Co. and Reliance Industries. Paulson & Co. has a tie-back to Perpetua Resources, and the [antimony] mine in Idaho and Reliance Industries is going to be our partner in India for manufacturing and distribution.”
So, why is a secure and plentiful supply of antimony important to Ambri? Because it is one of just two metal elements needed for the company’s liquid metal battery technology that Ambri believes is the real solution to the energy storage problem that lithium-ion technology has been unable to satisfy. The only other metal needed is calcium metal, which Briggs informed me is the “fifth-most available element on the planet. So, we have no concerns about our ability to source calcium metal.”
I noted that Perpetua’s current targeted start-up date for its Idaho mine is 2027 and asked if that lines up with Ambri’s own commercialization goals. “We’re excited about Perpetua because they come online and ramp up our domestic supply in ways that give us onshore supply chain security into the future,” Leff said.
That is critical, not just for Ambri, but for everyone in the Energy Transition space. Securing supply chains for the required critical minerals is also a focus area of the Biden-Harris administration, and as has been the case in every related story I’ve written on this subject this year, we see the goals and timelines of the companies involved aligning with those of the government. The big question is whether some of these minerals - lithium is a prime example - can see their production increased at the radical pace required to meet the needs of the renewables and EV industries.
Ambri does not need lithium or any of the other critical minerals required by lithium-ion technology. So, this technology solves for that big potential problem.
According to Briggs, the company’s liquid metal batteries also solve for all of the other chronic issues that have limited lithium-ion’s ability to grow to real scale in power generation.
“Ambri batteries are high-temperature batteries,” Briggs said. “They operate at an elevated temperature, which allows the calcium metal to melt into a liquid. It allows the salt electrolyte to melt into a liquid. As a result of those being liquids, you have an operating battery that has an insignificant amount of degradation over its lifetime.” So, problem #1 addressed.
“Now you have a 20-year battery that doesn’t degrade over its lifetime,” he continued. “That’s versus a lithium-ion battery, which typically is going to have about a 10-year end-of-life, and gradually degrades over that period of time.” Problem #2, addressed.
“The Ambri batteries are hermetically sealed, stainless-steel containers,” he went on. “That’s important from a battery perspective because it means there is no need for that battery to release pressure via a vent. All other batteries that you are familiar with from a commercial world have a tendency to generate a gas pressure from inside that battery, and consequently they’re designed with a vent in case the pressure gets too high. When they activate that vent, then flammable gases come out. That’s what happens in a lithium-ion fire.” Problem #3, addressed.
“With Ambri, you have a longer-life, lower-cost, safer battery,” Briggs concluded. “That’s what the energy storage market is looking for, and that’s the reason we’re coming to market and hoping to gain our fair share of it versus lithium-ion.”
While this all sounds great, no one at Ambri lives under the illusion that their technology will ultimately enable renewables to supply 100% of the world’s energy needs, or certainly not on the aggressive timetable goals set by the Biden administration.
“We’re not sitting here saying that the world is going to go 100% renewables anytime soon,” Briggs said. “It’s going to take a long time, and it may never get to 100%. But from a cost perspective, we can get to 80-90% renewable in the foreseeable future and achieve a lower cost to ratepayers. That transition will be a huge improvement for the planet. It will require a lot of batteries, but chosen correctly, that will result in a lower cost overall to ratepayers.”
It’s that “chosen correctly” part that will likely become the biggest hill to climb for Ambri and every other company involved in this Energy Transition. The U.S. government does not have a strong track record related to “choosing correctly” in its myriad efforts to pick winners and losers in the energy space over the decades. Governments in other countries, like Germany and France, have been no better in this regard.
What can be said here with confidence is that Ambri has a promising new battery technology that has been developed and backed by some very smart and visionary people that, if properly deployed, could help renewables like wind and solar scale up more rapidly in the coming years and help them occupy a larger share of electricity generation around the world.
There probably will never be any magic bullets that will somehow make this Energy Transition become reality overnight, but there will be game changers, and Ambri’s liquid metal battery technology might well be one of them.