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Gridtential thinks the OG rechargeable battery chemistry is ripe for disruption

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rows of lead-acid batteries for backup power
Image Credits: tongpatong / Getty Images

Lithium-ion batteries are one of the driving forces behind the transition away from fossil fuels, but the rechargeable battery that started it all — lead-acid — has received very little attention.

Invented over 160 years ago, lead-acid batteries have been upgraded a few times, but today’s cells are largely unchanged from those sold in the ’70s and ’80s. Gridtential, a Santa Clara-based startup, is betting there’s plenty of room for improvement. It’s developed a silicon plate that can replace up to 35% of the lead in a traditional battery while improving its charging rate fivefold and quadrupling its lifespan.

Gridtential today announced partnerships with two players in the lead-acid market, Hammond Group, which makes battery materials and additives, and Wirtz Manufacturing, which makes equipment to deposit battery material on a substrate.

“The partnerships with Hammond and Wirtz will merge three production steps our partners would have to take into a single, ready-made product,” said John Barton, the startup’s CEO. Barton estimates that just 10% of a factory’s equipment would need to be upgraded.

What’s more, the partnerships promise to open new doors for Gridtential, Barton said. Hammond and Wirtz are “in a sense, like Switzerland. They have the ability to interface with all these battery companies,” he said. Globally, there is over 400 GWh of lead-acid battery production capacity.

Gridtential said the potential market for its revised lead-acid batteries is about $37 billion spread across three different sectors — automotive, stationary energy storage and backup power for data centers and telecom installations.

EVs are part of the pitch, of course, but silicon-lead batteries might not be a hit among EV makers because the chemistry is pretty heavy. Barton acknowledged that, saying that e-bikes and auto rickshaws are more likely use cases.

Still, there’s a good chance they’ll make inroads in other parts of the automotive market.

Today, automotive starter batteries account for more than 70% of the total lead-acid battery market. As manufacturers seek to make their fossil-fueled vehicles more competitive with electric offerings, new components like mild hybrid systems, active anti-roll bars and electric turbochargers will demand more voltage than standard 12-volt batteries can provide. That creates an opening for Gridtential.

“One of the nice things about this battery, as well, is every time you add one of these [cells], you’re adding two volts,” Barton said. “We size accordingly.”

That also gives them easy entry into the data center, telecom and cable TV industries, where backup power voltage requirements vary. “You want 36 volts, which is common in CATV industry? No problem,” he added.

Exploded view of Gridtential's silicon-lead battery
Gridtential’s battery looks similar to other lead-acid batteries, except 35% of the lead is replaced with silicon. Image Credits: Gridtential

Data center backup power isn’t the only sector that will be less sensitive to lead’s hefty mass. Stationary storage, whether it’s hooked up directly to the grid or parked on a concrete pad outside someone’s home, seems well suited to cheaper batteries.

“Our macro view is that you’ll see that lithium proliferate to the EV main propulsion battery, and then some of these other markets where you can store it in a ground-based system, you’ll have an opportunity to do that with multiple other battery technologies,” Barton said.

While the infrastructure for lead-acid batteries is large and established, it’s not without its problems.

Lead is a potent toxin, and exposure is especially dangerous for children because it can interfere with their brain development. (No amount is considered safe inside the human body.) Much of the lead used today ends up in batteries, and most of that isn’t mined but recycled. In the U.S. and Europe, the lead-acid battery industry and the recycling process are highly regulated. But in other countries, they’re not. There, battery recycling plants often spew lead into the atmosphere. In one study of lead contamination in seven African countries, lead levels in soils around recycling plants were 100 times greater than what’s considered safe in the U.S.

In the U.S. at least, Barton said that those issues are largely in the past. “Some players have made some mistakes in the past in terms of lead recycling facilities,” he said. And, he pointed out, Gridtential’s silicon-lead technology replaces 35% of the toxic metal.

“If you were to reverse the math on that, that means that you could increase the amount of battery supply by that percentage without ever mining anything,” Barton said. “And then if you’re getting three to four to five times more performance out of it, you can really lever the existing lead for a lot more batteries.”

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