Rethinking the humble lead acid battery with chip and disk drive machines

As I wrote last week, the energy innovations of the future will need today’s machines. A young startup called Gridtential Energy is another example of this trend, and over the past three years has been quietly developing a better lead acid battery using chip and hard-disk drive manufacturing processes.

Cheap, low-performance lead acid batteries are commonly used to start gas-powered cars — you know, that battery that sometimes goes dead when you leave your lights on. But higher performance, better quality lead acid batteries are also used in devices like forklifts, wheelchairs, and golfcarts. That’s the first market that Gridtential wants to tackle, CEO Christiaan Beekhuis told me in an interview this week. Down the road the company wants to sell its batteries to power grid operators for applications like storage for a solar panel system.


Using a grant from the California Energy Commission, Gridtential was recently able to prove that several aspects of its lead acid battery are superior to the standard lead acid batteries currently on the market. The company’s batteries have twice the energy density (amount of energy they can store per volume) and also can cost between 50 to 90 percent less when used in bulk over time in a battery bank.

After achieving this milestone Gridtential recently raised a seed financing round of a little over $1 million led by The Roda Group, an investor in Berkeley, Calif. that has also backed startups in energy like algae fuel maker Solazyme and Internet firms like The company plans to raise more money down the road as it gets closer to commercialization.

IT machines

One of Gridtential’s core innovations is that it’s using manufacturing processes from the semiconductor and hard disk drive industry. Traditional lead acid batteries are made using lead plates with the active battery material pasted or printed onto the plate, which can make the layers thick and over time they can become detached from the plate. Gridtential is using the modern manufacturing techniques of the IT industry to create a thin layer of active material and have it bonded to the plate.

Beekhuis tells me that the manufacturing process makes the battery more robust (lasts longer), have a lot thinner active layer, and also makes for a lighter battery. The thin layer also means that the battery can charge and discharge with a higher efficiency, so it loses less energy to heat. In addition the Gridtential battery can be charged and discharged more than a regular battery, and can be charged and discharged to 80 percent of its capacity. In contrast basic lead acid batteries are more commonly charged and discharged closer to 40 to 50 percent of their capacity in order to make them last longer.

Golf cart battery

Golf cart battery

Beekhuis joined Gridtential in 2011 to help the team commercialize the technology. Previously he founded solar software company Fat Spaniel, which was sold to solar inverter maker Power-One.

Gridtential was founded by Peter Borden and Michele Klein back in 2010, and both entrepreneurs hail from Applied Materials. Borden developed solar manufacturing processes for Applied, and joined Applied after the chip manufacturing giant bought a processing company he founded. Klein developed energy storage technologies at Santa Clara University, and was a Senior Director at Applied Materials’ venture arm. Gridtential has just a handful of employees currently.

The startup, which is based in San Jose, Calif., plans to use the recently raised seed round to build, install and test alpha units of its batteries in real world settings. Commercial deployments aren’t expected until 2016.

Eventually when Gridtential wants to deploy its batteries commercially, the company can be fabless and can work with IT manufacturers on production. That means scaling up the technology can be a lot less expensive than building their own custom machines. For example, Gridtential has been working with Intevac (s IVAC), which is a major supplier of hard disk drive surfaces, on producing battery plates.

Other companies that are also using IT machines for production include thermoelectrics maker Alphabet Energy, and battery companies Imprint Energy and Seeo. In a year when funding for energy startups is very constrained, many of the new technologies that will emerge from the cleantech world will have to be built on standard low cost machines.

Still, building a battery startup from scratch is a very difficult thing to do. Another startup developing a better lead acid battery called Firefly Energy, which had raised funding from Khosla Ventures and the Quercus Trust, went bankrupt a couple years ago.