Solar benches shine light on promising new battery contender, Gelion

Sydney-based energy storage start-up Gelion has delivered the first commercial rollout of its zinc-bromine gel battery technology in six smart solar benches installed on campus at the University of Sydney.

Gelion Technologies, which was spun-out from the same University by founder and chemist, Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, has supplied the solar and battery-powered benches as part of the University’s living laboratory project.

The installation is part of a $1 million contract with the University that kicked off in early 2019, when Gelion’s Endure battery storage system was integrated into a portable, automated solar light tower, also at the University of Sydney.

Each of the six solar benches, unveiled on Monday at the University’s Camperdown and Darlington campuses, incorporate two seating benches and a solar roof that doubles as shelter, and are designed to extend lighting zones without mains power.

Storage-wise, at this stage each solar bench has been fitted with a small 1.2kWh version of the Endure battery, which will power the lights at night, while also demonstrating the batteries’ capabilities and monitoring their performance.

But Maschmeyer says the plan is to revisit the benches in the middle of next year and retrofit some of them with an up-sized version of the Endure battery that will have the capability to recharge student phones and laptops.

“The first generation [of the Endure batteries] is designed to supply the light at night, and to showcase that the whole battery technology works in this format,” Maschmeyer told One Step Off The Grid.

Gelion is most keen to demonstrate how the batteries’ zinc-bromine chemistry – most commonly associated with flow battery technologies – can thrive in off-grid applications, cope with high-temperatures, and offer long working lives, even if completely charged and discharged on a daily basis.

But from there, the company has big plans for 2021, when it aims to roll out more commercial demonstrations based on an improved design that looks like a lead-acid battery and – more importantly – can be manufactured in a very similar way.

“That’s the reason why we really think we have a chance,” Maschmeyer said. “Once we can prove the battery to scale with a lead-acid battery manufacturer, as half the market is still lead acid.

“We don’t have to start from scratch, we don’t have to build new factories, we can leverage that ecosystem enabling established low growth businesses with new high growth opportunities.”

At the other end of the technology’s life cycle, there is a product that is significantly less toxic than lead acid, and fully recyclable.

Maschmeyer says that, initially, the company would target the remote, off-grid market for its batteries, including for water desalination and irrigation in agriculture, where the more harsh the environment, the better.

“We will initially target applications where there is little system management required, to show that our batteries are abuse tolerant,” he said.

“The more difficult the better. That gets us to scale, then the narrative changes. It’s going to be a step-wise strategic introduction.

“We are talking to lead acid manufacturers… to companies in India, in the US, in Asia,” he added.

But for now, Maschmeyer is content to focus on the success story so far, in which Gelion has managed to deliver the solar smart benches, despite Covid, and in partnership with more than a dozen local manufacturers, using almost all Australian-made components.

“Everything that’s on the Sydney campus, except perhaps for the solar panels, is all Australian sourced and put together. Batteries, benches, system integration – and all during Covid.

“It’s a timely reminder that we can do stuff in Australia,. We can, design, conceive, manufacture. …It’s the beginning of something, even though it’s been really difficult.”

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