Aquion gearing up for battery production

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Aquion Energy Inc. is fine-tuning its battery production line at the former Sony plant in Westmoreland County, getting ready to ramp up production in the second half of the year.

The company began shipping its renewable, energy-storing batteries to customers worldwide about a month ago, said Ted Wiley, vice president of products and corporate strategy for Aquion. About 100 units have been shipped so far, and the company is asking customers to provide feedback data on the batteries, he said.

The sodium ion battery was invented by a Carnegie Mellon University professor, and Aquion has attracted a wide backing of investors, including Bill Gates. Earlier this year, it raised $55 million.

Aquion has its corporate headquarters and research and development site in Lawrenceville. For manufacturing, the company chose the former Sony site near New Stanton over a number of other states in 2012. It leased about 150,000 square feet initially, with room to expand to 500,000 square feet.

Currently, the company employs 70 people at the former Sony plant, now called RIDC-Westmoreland. Mr. Wiley said Aquion hopes to increase employment at the site by 30 to 40 percent by the end of this year, depending on customer orders.

The battery requires no regular maintenance, is environmentally friendly and has no toxic chemicals, according to the company. It can be disposed of in a landfill and, unlike lithium batteries, does not have an unstable chemical reaction that may overheat.

Most of the batteries are being used with solar panels to replace electricity from a power grid or from diesel generators.

“We’ve been doing well; everyone seems to like the product. And the technology seems to be working very well," he said.

“We’re in the final manufacturing design phase,” Mr. Wiley said. “We’re ready to turn the switch, but we’re watching everything for a couple more weeks so we are in low-volume production, validating the steps in the manufacturing line. We’ll conclude that on June 27.”

The company plans to have an open house after July 4 to publicly unveil the production line. The company would not comment on the price of the battery.

Aquion gets its name from the Aqueous Hybrid Ion process used in the batteries. Powdered lithium and other elements are compacted into thin squares that are layered in the batteries with a sodium solution to conduct electricity.

A basic stack of seven batteries — which serves as the building block for larger modules and pallets of batteries — can store 1.7 kilowatts of energy, weighs 220 pounds, measures 13 inches by 12 inches and is 33 inches high. Officials have said a typical home would need between four and 10 batteries in a stack.

Most customers will use the batteries to store energy from solar panels, although the battery can store wind energy and energy from an electric grid as well. About 70 percent of the company's customers so far are commercial sites and the rest are residences.

“We’re seeing a lot of action from islands,” Mr. Wiley said.

He said Aquion has shipped units to Hawaii, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Eastern U.S. seaboard and Japan, which wants to replace its reliance on nuclear power.

“We have a resort in Southeast Asia that is off the grid, and a high-end home in Hawaii,” he said. "In Puerto Rico, where they have no coal or natural gas of their own and have to ship it in, our price is competitive with diesel-powered generation,” he said. "Solar panels and our batteries are competitive there — we’ve seen the price of solar come down 90 percent in the last five years."

He said the company's batteries are not as competitive here because electricity is cheaper to produce in Western Pennsylvania due to the availability of coal and natural gas from Marcellus Shale.

Some Aquion customers are connected to a grid but are using the batteries during peak hours when electricity is more expensive. Others will store solar energy during the day from solar panels and use it at night.

“The desert in Chile gets about eight hours of good sun a day for solar panels,” he said, adding that’s the best region for solar panels. “But most areas get between four and six hours of good sun, when the sun is at a good angle for the panels. So maybe a customer charges the battery for four hours and then uses the battery energy over a 20-hour period."

The company also has field sites, where it will continue to monitor and test the batteries.

Aquion is partnering with Siemens, which makes an inverter that transfers alternating current into direct current, Mr. Wiley said. "Solar power is DC, and your TV works on AC current. Our batteries are DC current as well. So they are a great partner for us. Their products can take renewable energy to the grid, and take energy off the grid into our batteries."

This summer, Westmoreland County Community College will move its workforce development programs from its Youngwood campus to the former Sony plant. It will be called the Advanced Technology Center, and the college will work with local employers, including Kennametal, to help train workers.

Debra Duncan, freelance writer:

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