Battery startup Aquion Energy gears up for production

Grid battery startup Aquion Energy announced on Tuesday that it plans to build a factory in Pennsylvania and begin production of its sodium batteries starting in 2013. The company — backed by Kleiner Perkins, Foundation Capital, Advanced Technology Ventures and the Department of Energy — is using basic materials like sodium and water to build modular batteries that will be able to provide energy storage services for the power grid.

Aquion Energy says it’s leasing a facility from the Regional Industrial Development Corporation in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, and the company plans to start building out the factory infrastructure soon. Battery production will start in 2013, and the factory will create 400 jobs by the end of 2015, says the company.

In a time when DOE-backed companies and green jobs have become a hot-button political issue, Aquion Energy isn’t making a whole lot of noise with the announcement — which is probably a good thing. Moving from a viable technology to full scale manufacturing is a tough road, and one filled with twists and turns (it’s called the Valley of Death for a reason).

Founded in 2007, and developed out of Carnegie Mellon University, the company’s battery pairs a carbon anode with a sodium-based cathode. Water-based electrolytes shuttle ions between the two electrodes during charging and discharging, as opposed to solvent-based electrolytes.

Founder and chief technology officer Jay Whitacre told us that as a professor at CMU he “wanted to do something different,” and with assistance from students, he set out to identify materials that could be “massively used” and “incredibly scalable.” He focused on stationary applications, like the grid, where lower energy density can be an acceptable trade-off for lower costs and longer life.

The company says its battery can withstand a wide range of temperatures without losing storage capacity. That means the devices could be installed alongside a solar installation without sapping energy for air conditioning to keep the batteries cool.

Aquion Energy told us a year ago that a planned factory costs between $75 million and $80 million, and last summer the company raised $20 million.