The Aquion battery

Aquion Energy quietly opened its manufacturing plant in Westmoreland County this spring where a production line is rolling out eco-friendly, industrial-strength batteries that will power businesses and homes off the grid.

“We’ve been able to produce (batteries) since about March,” says CEO and founder Jay Whitacre.

The operation currently employs less than 200 who work between the company’s Westmoreland County and Lawrenceville locations, says Whitacre. Hiring is underway to fill about 20 job openings. “We’re hiring everything from senior presidents to floor manufacturing,” he says.

Manufacturing is housed in what was formerly a Sony plant in East Huntingdon, which made rear-project TVs that went by the wayside with the advent of LCDs and plasmas. The building was originally built for Chrysler in the 1960s, but was purchased by Volkswagen in the 1970s before a single Chrysler was made at the plant.

What makes Aquion’s batteries unique, by sustainable standards, is its saltwater electrolyte technology, a utility-scale, temperature tolerant mix that can endure 5,000+ charging cycles with 85% efficiency.

The batteries are a mix of salt water, carbon and manganese oxide, which makes them inexpensive to create and environmentally-friendly, minus the toxic chemicals contained in acid and alkaline-based batteries and the problems associated with lithium ion batteries.

Aquion believes its batteries will last for thousands of cycles, without a reduction in performance. The plant plans to ship between 5,000 and 10,000 batteries this year.

“Our batteries store energy for homes and businesses that already have the infrastructure of alternative energy, like solar panels and wind energy, in place,” he said. “You need to have that energy stored for when the sun isn’t out or the wind isn’t blowing.”

The low manufacturing cost also makes the batteries affordable for any household or business, Whitacre says. Businesses and homes save money on electric bills in the short term. The batteries may challenge and change how energy is stored and distributed in the long term.

“We’re simply making and selling high-performance energy storage systems,” he said. “We want them to be affordable and reliable.”

To date, the company has received more than $100 million in venture capital including a $35 million investment from Microsoft’s Bill Gates, a fan of the sustainable battery technologies. Aquion was also named one of 50 Disruptive Companies in 2013 by the MIT Technology Review.

“This has been a really great couple of years for us,” he said. “We’re excited for our future.”

Rick Monti

R.A. Monti is a freelance writer and future lawyer. A graduate of Penn State, he is a student at the Duquesne School of Law. When he's not not writing or reading, you can find him watching a game while...