Jay Whitacre, the materials scientist and CMU professor who invented a saltwater battery so eco-friendly he once popped a piece in his mouth, has won the 2015 Lemelson-MIT Prize, an international award for inventors whose work can improve the world.
Whitacre founded Aquion Energy in 2008, a manufacturing company that churns out batteries in the former Sony plant in Westmoreland County. Aquion Energy currently installs its sustainable batteries in solar arrays around the world with a focus on solar-friendly locations in California, Germany, Hawaii and Australia. The company has 75 international partners and employs 75.
While solar panels and wind turbines generate renewable energy, the problem remains of how to store that energy both cheaply and safely for those times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
Energy storage, a $13.5 billion dollar market, has drawn serious, high-profile competition. Earlier this year, Tesla Motors announced its own home-battery system that promises to one day help homeowners disconnect from the grid. Many competing solutions are based on lead-acid chemistry or lithium-ion which pollute the environment and have proven unsafe.
The Aqueous Hybrid Ion Battery is the only solution that’s both clean and safe, says Whitacre. To prove the point, he bit into the battery’s fuel cell in front of investors. Aquion batteries promise high-performance for large-scale operations at a low cost and have a lifespan of 20 years.
“Our technology is a front-runner,” he says. Winning the prestigious MIT-Lemelson prize will give the company a well-deserved boost, he adds.
The company has raised $135 million to date from several investors including lead investor Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Whitacre will receive $500,000 for his “groundbreaking sustainable inventions to improve our world and dedication to the next generation,” says the MIT-Lemelson announcement.
Previous Lemelson-MIT Prize winners include 2014 winner Sangeeta Bhatia, a pioneer in the area of life sciences and tissue regeneration. Nick Holonyak won in 2004, the inventor of the first practical LED (light emitting diode) and the household dimmer switch.