Gelion: Readying For Battery Manufacturing After COVID Delays

Gelion battery - zinc bromine gel energy storage

Like just about everybody, Australian battery innovator Gelion has had its business plans disrupted. But the company hopes it can have its first pilot trial production line ready early in 2022, and also anticipates commercial availability next year.

And because a new manufacturing facility in Australia seems to go against a (mostly) political narrative that Australia doesn’t build things anymore, SolarQuotes interviewed Gelion CEO Andrew Grimes last week to discuss the company’s battery technology and its plans.

Gelion’s Battery Chemistry

Some readers will be familiar with zinc-bromine in flow batteries, such as those made by Queensland company Redflow. Redflow was in fact the genesis of Gelion, as Grimes explained to us.

“The founder, Professor Thomas Maschmeyer [of Sydney University], was approached by Redflow a few years ago to see if he could help them with some problems. He’s a catalytic chemist, he did some work for them, and realised that there was an opportunity to use the flow battery chemistry.”

Gelion chairman Thomas Maschmeyer

Gelion chairman Professor Thomas Maschmeyer

What Maschmeyer realised was the zinc-bromine chemistry could also be built in a form factor similar to lead-acid batteries for stationary storage applications. That application wasn’t of interest to Redflow, so the company gave Maschmeyer permission to pursue his idea. He set about building prototypes to demonstrate the technology, and in 2015 Gelion was born.

Grimes told us the chemistry is the same as Redflow uses:

“Zinc bromide gets split apart (into zinc and bromine) and brought back together, depending on whether you are charging or discharging.”

However, instead of pumping the zinc-bromine across a membrane, the Gelion approach is similar to lead-acid batteries, with plates and electrolytes.

In a lead-acid battery, there’s just a single electrolyte. In the Gelion chemistry, there are two – one zinc, and one bromine, both as gels – and it’s the combination and division of those electrolytes that charge and discharge the batteries through the plates.

Finding A Place In A Fragmenting Market

In a market where all the popular attention is given to lithium-ion batteries – courtesy of Tesla’s very high public profile – adopting a different chemistry might seem high risk. However, as Maschmeyer explains in this video, zinc-bromine is “nine times cheaper per electron transferred” than a lithium-ion battery.

Of course, as an early stage manufacturer, Gelion will start out with significantly higher labour costs than more established technologies. Grimes said as the company gains manufacturing experience, it will learn how to automate its processes as far as possible.

While not yet ready to name unit prices to SolarQuotes, he said the company knows where it wants prices to get to.

Gelion CEO Andrew Grimes

Gelion CEO Andrew Grimes

He believes the levellised cost of energy out of Gelion batteries – that is, accounting for whole-of-life costs such as disposal, the air conditioning a large lithium installation needs, the cost of transport and so on – will be significantly lower than large lithium.

Right now, it looks to the lay observer like the battery market is consolidating around lithium-ion batteries, but Grimes says that’s a misconception. The world is still learning how different use cases have different requirements. While lithium-ion is the ideal battery for EVs, grid-scale batteries are better suited to technologies that scale up but use cheap materials (like zinc-bromine batteries).

So, Grimes said, the market is fragmenting, and that’s a good thing for companies like Gelion.

“There is a real demand in stationary storage for other technologies – we see the market fragmenting as it gets larger and larger. And we see that our chemistry suits a particular application around stationery storage and energy shifting.”

Recycling And Safety

There are other big advantages: like lead-acid batteries, zinc-bromine batteries are highly recyclable – Grimes said the Gelion batteries are “95% recyclable”.

And the chemistry is intrinsically safe, with the electrolytes having fire-retardant properties. As you can see in this YouTube video (courtesy of the ABC), you can treat a Gelion battery very harshly without starting a fire:

Grimes said by its nature, lithium is a dangerous technology: “it gets dendrites that form a short circuit, and that starts the fire”. And anyone who’s seen a large lead-acid installation is familiar with signs warning of the spark risk.

Grimes pointed out that in the ABC video, not only did the battery not catch fire, it didn’t stop delivering electricity.

This safety should be particularly attractive to remote users, since if you’re half a day’s travel from town, you’re also a long way from fire-fighters.

“We’re also in discussions with some of the large commercial building companies, who are very interested in putting batteries into new buildings, but don’t want a lithium power plant in the basement”, Grimes said.

Remote Households

The remote off-grid market is especially important in Western Australia and Queensland, he said, where operators can have single households connected to lines running tens of kilometres. Gelion reckons its batteries will be a perfect fit in such applications because of their safety, transportability (they can be transported at zero charge), and because they’re less demanding on the users.

The zinc-bromine chemistry has a characteristic lacking in either lithium-ion or lead-acid batteries: instead of damaging the batteries, completely discharging the Gelion battery is beneficial.

“Essentially it’s plating and deplating zinc on the anode side. On the cathode, it’s dissolving and undissolving the bromine.”

Those chemicals are quite happy to be plated and de-plated – Grimes said complete discharge performs a kind of “chemical reset” on the battery – and that’s not true for the lead-acid battery.

“When you go too far down, you start getting reactions that are not reversible. You have sediment falling to the bottom of the battery that will never take part in a reaction again.”

Everybody who owns a lead-acid battery bank knows the drill: whoever sets up the system has to decide the discharge limit and when to sound the alarm. A Gelion user will simply notice a blackout if they let the battery fall to zero.

Gelion Battery Manufacturing Nearly Ready To Go

With Sydney’s lockdown ending soon, Grimes expects to start work on establishing the pilot production line in Fairfield soon.

“We are hoping to be putting small quantities of cells together by the end of the year. With battery manufacturing you start with a manual process, and as your process improves, you start putting in equipment and bringing down the costs.”

It might look like an uphill battle in a national culture that assumes “nothing is made in Australia”, but Grimes said Australia “punches above its weight” as a market for battery storage.

There’s also the question of autonomy and independence from global supply chains that weren’t as robust as everyone believed.

“Global politics and COVID have made us feel that being a little more self-reliant isn’t a bad thing,” Grimes said.

And since the company’s initial customers will be here, being close to the customer makes it easier to be responsive.

Gelion’s plan for the global market is to seek out partners among the world’s lead-acid battery manufacturers because the manufacturing processes are so similar.

Author’s note: This story has been edited. The original version of the story stated manufacturing could commence this year, which was in error.

About Richard Chirgwin

Richard Chirgwin is a journalist with more than 30 years' experience covering a wide range of technology topics, including electronics, telecommunications, computing and science.

Comments

  1. Peter Brett says

    I want to see a residential offering. I’m prepared to take the risk with a beta test version.

  2. Kerry MacDermott says

    Sounds great! Of course, in such a competitive market it will all come down to final price and how soon they can scale up to that

  3. Lee McCurtayne says

    If we want a a “Real” alternative, Australian initiative “Will” provide a technical and cost effective alternative. It is emerging, and what is being produced is of significant interest offshore. Century Battery’s are proof of exactly that. Don’t dismiss the local product, it’s carefully staking a claim in our power producing future.

  4. Howard Patrick says

    It would be useful if Gelion would provide some basic information about power and density.

  5. Giancarlo Buffon says

    Price will be one of the factors that makes or breaks these batteries. Lithium batteries and lead acid are a known and proven technology. People are not going to want to take risks with something new without some incentive, i.e. price and believable real world examples like home installations that are seeing real benefits.

    The chemistry sounds good tho, but time will tell if what is promised delivers.

    I’ll buy the batteries if it’s as good as it sounds and doesn’t cost the earth.

  6. Ian Thompson says

    When I see statements such as “zinc-bromide is nine times cheaper per electron transferred” (than a lithium ion battery), I can’t help but think:

    1. Either, this person does not have a good grip on physics, or
    2. This person has chosen to deliberately mislead.

    My reason for thinking this, is that the rate of transfer of electrons (charge) relates directly only to the current, with no consideration of terminal voltage.

    The fact is, that a zinc-bromide cell voltage is 1.85v, whereas that of a lithium-ion cell is close to 3.7v (up to 4.2v), about twice as much.

    Therefore, in energy terms – storage of which a battery is all about – the original quote overstates the (energy) cost savings by a factor of 2. Still good, but misleading – and unfortunately (for me), this taints the entire article as possibly a case of general misrepresentation.

    The author should KNOW, that the purpose of a battery is to store ENERGY. After all, a bucket of water stores a huge number of electrons – and you can ‘transfer’ them, by pouring them from one bucket to another.

    • Erik Christiansen says

      Ian, dismissing the claimed 1/9th cost per electron transferred, would seem to forget that for each two electrons going one way, one Zinc ion or two Lithium ions must flow the other way in the respective electrolytes. The size of the slab of Li or Zn in the battery determines how many electrons the battery can push about before recharging, and the assertion appears to merely state that Zn is much cheaper than Li, and maybe allude to the bivalence. The cost advantage will have to increase as BEVs corner the Li market, and grid-scale and domestic storage will then fall off the increasingly expensive horse. I think their market will come at them at speed by mid decade.

      The issue for Redflow Zn-Br batteries in domestic use is that charge and discharge rates are modest – you really need a minimum of two of them.
      If volume were to reach the point where price halves, then they’d be hard to beat. The Gelion battery is said to have a tunable (dis)charge rate (at manufacture), so may be a better fit for domestic installations.

      If that is so, or a high voltage battery box is planned, it would be a very interesting technical exercise to try their fit in an off-grid domestic environment with workshop. If only modest charging current is possible in initial battery builds, then a balancing BMS ought to allow a 120 V or 240 V stack to accommodate good charging power at modest current. With a planned redundant system, yet to be finalised, and a generator, most issues arising would merely intrigue this retired electrical engineer.

      • Ian Thompson says

        Yes, Eric Christiansen, no doubt you are correct (that zinc is cheaper than lithium, and about the issue of bivalence).
        And no doubt this may be the basis of the claim of 1/9th the cost (per coulomb transferred).
        But the fact remains – per electron transferred, the Zn-Br cell transfers only about half the ENERGY of a Li-ion cell.
        So – putting the spin aside – the Zn-Br cell will be 1/(4.5) the cost of a Li-ion cell, per kWh of ENERGY transferred – if the 1/9 claim is in fact ultimately proven true.
        My point was – putting such a ‘spin’ on claims such as this – misrepresents the facts, and merely does a disservice to perception of the truth of the matter. I, for one, now have little confidence believing even the 1/(4.5) cost claim.

        In my view, your suggestion that my concern may ‘forget’ aspects of the INTERNAL characteristics of the cell, are merely a ‘red herring’. I was considering the real-world characteristics, at the cell terminals. I DO dismiss the 1/9 claim as incorrect in terms of effective battery energy storage characteristics – but do not necessarily dismiss a 1/(4.5) figure.

        I would also be concerned with other real-world factors – like operational life, reliability, need for maintenance, possible recycling issues, etc., etc. These issues should also be included in ‘the cost per kWh transferred’.

        • Erik Christiansen says

          Iam, the two real-world superiorities of the Zn-Br battery you mention, long operational life and very high recyclability, are significant advantages, and reliability is enhanced by the regenerative scrubbing cycles, but anything with a pair of pumps in it faces the prospect of a mechanical failure. At least the BLDC motors don’t have commutator or brush wear maintenance issues, and lightly loaded bearings can have a very long life. The economics of replacing a component in a flow battery, versus the total replacement of an irreparable Powerwall or similar, puts maintainability streets ahead.

          The lower charge cycle efficiency, in the 80s rather than high 90s, can be cheaply offset by a larger PV array, given the low cost of a few more panels, but the need for a battery scrubbing cycle every fortnight or so, and the modest maximum charging rate, pretty much necessitate a minimum of two batteries in a real-world domestic or business installation. These factors, specifically, have me looking more favourably at LiFePO4 or Lithium Titanate, though only the latter is comparable with Zn-Br in terms of cycle life – probably the biggest real-world cost factor of all, beside price.

    • John Mitchell says

      There are a lot of things that don’t quite add up in this article.

      Statements like this: “Grimes said by its nature, lithium is a dangerous technology: “it gets dendrites that form a short circuit, and that starts the fire”. And anyone who’s seen a large lead-acid installation is familiar with signs warning of the spark risk.”

      Breaking that down “Lithium is a dangerous technology” Why? LifePO4 is one of the safest battery technologies out there. And even the other lithium chemistries aren’t particularly dangerous or we wouldn’t be carrying them around in our pocket.

      “it gets dendrites that form a short circuit, and that starts the fire” – very rarely and never if the battery is manufactured correctly and managed properly. Well LG doesn’t have a good track record.

      “And anyone who’s seen a large lead-acid installation is familiar with signs warning of the spark risk.”

      I’m not sure what that’s got to do with lithium being a “dangerous technology” but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume Richard might have cut a few words from the quote.

      I think any new implementation is promising (old chemistry, new design) – this one probably suits remote installations more than residential as it promises to last for decades and one of the major costs for telecoms is the labour involved in replacing cells.

      After seeing the YT video I think this chemistry has problems competing with lithium in residential. Power and capacity is low per kg, Efficiency is way down on lithium ion with round trip around 76% (not counting inverter losses) and it’s currently a lot more expensive per Wh. So you need to buy more Wh, they’ll take up more space and you’ll need more solar/wind/grid to charge it due to the inefficiencies.

      It’s a chemistry that benefits from being fully discharged but in a home environment that won’t always be easy to achieve – and it isn’t mentioned what happens if you don’t discharge it to zero?

      • Ian Thompson says

        Hi John Mitchell

        You make a range of very good points – perhaps it’s more a case of marketing ‘spin’, than brutal honesty. The proof will be in the pudding, once (if) this new arrangement gets off the ground. Zn-Br has been around for a LONG time.
        When it comes to lithium safety, I expect a lot of people are influenced by the highly publicised Samsung Note 7 fires (I purchased a Samsung 8S subsequently, on the basis it was extremely unlikely Samsung would want a follow up marketing disaster – and this has proven trouble free – apparently in the interest of saving some thickness they had deleted an insulating layer, since re-instated). Also by highly promoted Tesla fires – and in fact I understand insurance companies are reluctant to cover charging stations established inside high-rise parking facilities.
        But it is not as if petrol cars have never caught fire…! Older Ford Escorts were known for it – and even high end BMWs have immolated themselves.

        Was particularly interested in your discharge comment. As I recall, the Redflow ZN-Br flow battery will periodically discharge itself down to zero from time-to-time – a NECESSARY characteristic to preserve function. This must be very energy inefficient (wasting the residual charge), and inconvenient (may be empty when needed in the early morning). Hope the new arrangement doesn’t require this feature.

        • Erik Christiansen says

          It is widely reported that the Chevy Bolt fires have cost GM two billion dollars, and a massive recall. Production is stopped until LG Chem can provide a safer battery. Owners have been advised not to park within 50 feet of another car, to avoid liability, I have read in a number of sources.

          There are numbers suggesting that in USA, one ICE vehicle burns for each 20 million miles travelled, while for Teslas, the rate is one per 205 million miles. I don’t know if the Chevy Bolt is as bad as the ICE vehicle rate, despite its dramatic problems.

          But ICE vehicles rarely catch fire while parked, and the fire is much more readily extinguished – 300 gallons vs 30,000 gallons in US measure.

          Apropos the energy inefficiency of scrubbing a Zn-Br battery, the automatic 100% discharge only occurs if consumption has not preempted the operation. It is not difficult for an efficiency conscious user to hammer the battery in a night shortly before the scrub will schedule. Admittedly, if the extra washing machine / dishwasher / cooking / HWS loads could have been supplied by generation during the day, and one was home, then there is a loss – unless one is grid connected, and can export the energy dump for profit. Alternatively, a BEV will generally be able to swallow 10 or 20 kWh if it has been standing in an ordinary carpark at work during the week. If off-grid, the greater concern is to have two batteries, with staggered scrub cycles, or there’s no power until the PV array or fossil fuel generator come on line.
          But then, two 10 kWh batteries would be an off-grid minimum anyway, so no big deal there, in the real world, I contend. (Yup, off-grid is not for the impecunious.)

      • Lachlan Ward says

        https://www.pv-magazine-australia.com/2021/08/02/fire-at-victorian-big-battery-now-under-control/

        The Gelion battery won’t burn. That’s a big advantage for grid scale in any country where fire risk is a big consideration which is rapidly becoming every country. Also the reduction in construction costs by not needing cooling et al that’s a big win as well.

        If you have a battery that won’t burn, won’t explode and can discharge to 0 and then recharge and keep working. You’ve got a safer, more reliable battery than lithium ion. If it’s cheaper and you can build it with already existing infrastructure like lead acid facilities you’ve just done something huge.

        Seems to be that’s what Gelion has accomplished. The company goes public next month.

        Gelion might be about to explode… in market cap.

    • Llewellyn says

      Where are the actual specifics of operation please , I see nothing except media hype.

  7. battery life is the lithium weakness ie. Zn-Br does not seem to have a long list of don’t do’s

  8. Everything is relative really.

    For longevity of Lithiums, one ideal is to keep state of charge levels within a window. Which means using less of the battery capacity.

    I would be curious to see what sort of life cycle these will have. That they can be discharged completely without degradation suggests in my mind (perhaps) a longer relative life span. If so, the longer life cycle i see as effectively lowering the carbon emission per energy unit of battery.

  9. Norbert Reni says

    Came across an article recently in Cosmos about a Queensland company called ZED (Zero Emissions Developments). It’s big thing is making storage batteries using graphene. They claim their battery is a hybrid using electro-static and electro-chemical setup. Don’t know what that means but a school in Queensland has installed them in conjunction with the solar panels the company also makes. They claim on their website that graphene batteries have a number of advantages over LI’s. Near 100% recyclability, less heat generation, more power output, longer lifespan, lower cost because graphene is more readily available than lithium. On that last one I don’t know what the price for different storage units are because I’m not interested in talking to a sales rep and that’s the only way to find out. They don’t have pricings on the models on their website, for either commercial or residential units. I’m not a nerd when it comes to this stuff but if it’s a goer that’s got to be a good thing surely. One more arrow to our Aussie quiver.

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