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Building a better battery

Chelsea Yates
Photos courtesy of Membrion


Membrion seeks to innovate battery storage with a lower cost, improved battery membrane using silica gel.

Imagine revolutionizing the renewable energy market with the silica gel packets you find in shoeboxes and snack bags. The research team behind Membrion is working to do just that. Developed by chemical engineering researchers Greg Newbloom (PhD ’14) and Weyerhaeuser Endowed Associate Professor Lilo Pozzo, the Membrion technology seeks to innovate battery storage with a lower cost, improved battery membrane that uses silica gel. And, the team says, they couldn’t be doing it without the support of partners on and off campus committed to advancing alternative energy research, innovation and commercialization.

Membrion, which incorporated in March 2016, won this year’s Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship’s Business Plan Competition as well as the competition’s “Best Idea for the Future” award. Newbloom is founder and CTO of the new company; he and Pozzo recently spoke with us about their emerging technology, its entrepreneurial journey and where they hope to take it next.

Explain to us what Membrion is and how it will affect the renewable energy market.
GN: Renewable energy, like solar or wind energy, is great but it’s not always available on demand. For example, if you want to watch T.V. after dark, you can’t rely on direct solar power. So, to provide on-demand power, renewable energy is stored in batteries. To store a lot of energy, you need a lot of really big batteries — this is often referred to as “grid-scale” storage. Flow batteries are the ideal choice for grid-scale energy storage, but they tend to be very pricy in large part due to their complex polymer membranes. This is where Membrion is changing things: We’re making membranes from silica gel instead. It’s more durable, less expensive, and will yield better performance overall. Our goal is to make batteries affordable and efficient so that renewable energy becomes an even more accessible and desired source to power communities worldwide.
What is a flow battery, and what is a battery membrane?

single solar cell, hooked up to electrodesFlow batteries work by pumping water-based electrolyte solutions into a cell, such as the one shown here. Electrolytes are charged or discharged depending on whether a current is being applied from a solar cell or wind turbine, or if it is being extracted, like when it’s delivered to homes.

GN: Flow batteries are considered the best option for grid-scale energy storage due to their scalability, safety and adjustable energy and power rating. They work by pumping water-based electrolyte solutions into a cell. The electrolytes can be charged or discharged depending on whether a current is being applied from a solar cell or wind turbine, or if it is being extracted, like when it’s delivered to homes. The flow battery’s membrane must be able to filter molecules so that some pass through quickly while others do not. Only certain materials allow for this sort of filtering, and to date polymers have been the go-to.

How did you come up with the idea to use silica instead?

A flow battery’s membraneA flow battery’s membrane must filter molecules so that some pass through quickly while others do not. Only certain materials allow for this sort of filtering. To date polymers have been the material of choice, but Membrion is exploring ways to replace them with silica gel.

GN: There has been a lot of interest in finding reliable, less costly alternatives to the complex polymer membranes that are currently used. Many researchers are trying to make new membranes out of inexpensive plastics, but they just degrade slowly over time. Instead of creating a new kind of plastic, Professor Pozzo suggested that we try to repurpose pre-existing materials. After about a year of research, we hit on it: silica gel. It’s a ceramic, so it’s more chemically stable than many polymers, so it lasts longer. Additionally, its tunable pores allow it to filter molecules better. As soon as it made sense, we filed a provisional patent.

Why was it important to develop this technology with commercialization in mind from the start?
LP: We’ve always had the real-world application of this work in mind, so we’ve been advancing both research and commercialization simultaneously from the project’s first days. For me, it has been a wonderful way to combine my research interests with my interests in supporting student-driven entrepreneurship. Though we’re still refining the technology here at the UW, part of the team has spun out and is designing a product to enter the flow battery market. Greg is leading that technology translation, and he’s been very successful so far.

GN: The Pacific Northwest is the perfect place to be doing this work, as some of the country’s leading battery manufacturing companies are here, such as UniEnergy Technologies in Mukilteo and Energy Storage Systems near Portland. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is here too. These companies and research labs have been very helpful and are eager to see this technology become successful.

How has the UW helped support you in entrepreneurship?

LP: The UW has developed a great ecosystem for supporting successful student entrepreneurship. The community has put a lot of thought into how to provide resources that complement each other and encourage growth and learning through coaching and funding.

GN: We’ve benefited from support from a number of units, and we are so grateful for all of them! The Clean Energy Institute (CEI) awarded us fellowship and travel grants, allowing us to attend research forums and business plan competitions across the country. We’ve received funding from the Murdock Charitable Trust, CoMotion and Amazon Catalyst to help us bridge the gap from idea to product, hire research assistants and advance our work. CoMotion also provided valuable IP coaching and helped us apply for our patent.

We’ve also participated — and placed — in some of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship’s competitions, like the Environmental Innovation Challenges and Business Plan Competitions. But I’d say that the Center’s Jones + Foster Accelerator — a structured program that helps early-stage student companies through their initial months — has been most helpful in getting the business of Membrion off the ground.

What have you enjoyed most about developing Membrion?
GN: I get to combine the research and engineering skills I developed as a student with my interest in business development. In chemical engineering, we’re working to solve long-term, complicated problems; adding a business layer makes them even more complex and, in my opinion, more fun. I get to draw from all of that as I train and mentor our student research assistants and communicate our product’s significance to prospective partners and investors.

LP: I’ve enjoyed watching my students grow and develop as leaders. They are driving the progress and commercialization of Membrion; it’s truly “learning by doing.” Research-wise, this is a relative new area for me, so that’s exciting as well.

What’s next for Membrion?
GN: We’re continuing to work on technical development and refinement. Once we’ve fully transformed our idea into a buyable product, we’ll begin testing it outside of the lab, which is exciting. A long-term objective is to apply our technology to water purification. It’s a larger, more aggressive market, but there’s a lot of potential for impact. Adapting Membrion’s technology to it could be a real game changer.

Learn more about Membrion »

A flow battery’s membraneThe Membrion research team. From left to right: Batholomew Kimani, Aaron West, Greg Newbloom, Lilo Pozzo, Ryan Kastilani, Eden Rivers, Lauren Martin, Jaime Rodriguez and Claire Wei.

Originally published July 19, 2017