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UA researchers eye renewable energy storage market with ecofriendly battery

Scientists at the University of Arizona are in the process of developing an environmentally friendly battery that could help change the way renewable energy is stored, school officials said.

The battery is being developed by UA researchers, who founded the two-year-old company CarbeniumTec, which is looking to address storage issues for renewable energy, such as solar power plants.

The project looks to overcome renewable energy's reliance on weather with better storage capabilities, said Thomas Gianetti, a co-founder of CarbeniumTec and assistant professor in the university's chemistry and biochemistry department.

"So if we want to implement and really ramp up the amount of renewable energy used in the states and worldwide, you really need to couple that renewable energy production with some form of storage," he said.

Roughly 95 percent of the United States' electricity storage is via hydroelectricity, but building more dams is not feasible in many areas like the Southwest, Gianetti said. Some companies are shifting to lithium ion batterie to store power.

"So right now, they cannot build more dams, and they need a battery. The only battery available to them is basically the lithium ion battery, which has a lot of issues," he said.

Lithium ion batteries are flammable and can only store power for short periods, he said. Current lithium ion batteries can provide about four to six hours of electricity, Gianetti said.

The battery being developed by Gianetti and his colleagues with CarbeniumTec will be organic-based, without toxic metals, he said. Some batteries include mined materials like lithium, which CarbeniumTec's would not.

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"We don't want to have to devastate the landscape just to try to save the Earth," said Phil Lacovara, who joined the company in October 2020 as a co-founder. The third co-founder is Jules Moutet, a postdoctoral research associate who does much of the lab work.

Lacovara, an entrepreneur with a background in physics and research, joined the project through Tech Launch Arizona, which helps connect university scientists with entrepreneurs and assists in areas such as licensing and setting up companies.

Lacovara is setting up an accounting system and HR policies for when the company begins hiring as well as creating the business plan. The startup will be pitching to investors within the year, he said.

Renewable energy storage is a multi-trillion dollar industry, he said. But the massive market is not without competition. "There are incumbents, but it's such an early stage of this market developing that there's still a lot of room for innovation," Lacovara said.

The battery is currently at lab-scale, Gianetti said. The goal is for a scalable prototype to be available in a year or two, Lacovara said.

Storage capacity for renewables in the United States could increase by as much as 650 gigawatts by 2050, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

Jules Moutet (left) holds part of the battery as he talks with Thomas Gianetti. Moutet and Gianetti are two of the co-founders of CarbeniumTec, which is trying to improve storage for renewable energy.