A biting wind blows across campus, but he barely notices as he walks, fuming over the mediocre grade. Unbelievable. He’d put in hours on that tedious assignment. It’s been only a month since he began this doctoral physics program, but Jay Whitacre hates it more each day. The classes are impossible, the work is dull, and the research he came for isn’t happening.
Whitacre reaches his apartment. It’s 1994. He’d come to this university in Colorado with high hopes, following a professor he’d worked with over the summer. He’d studied hard through college, certain of his path since he’d taken his time to choose. As a child in suburban Ohio, through most of his education, he was not a standout student, though he had enjoyed science—he’d been obsessed with space and had had a penchant for taking apart family appliances. He was also involved in music (classically trained in trumpet) and spent much time rehearsing and performing.
By college, he had decided against the musician’s life. Still, he’d chosen Oberlin, where he could dabble in music while pursuing other studies. It wasn’t long before he was in the physics program, which had a professor whose research involved thin film solar cells. Whitacre was fascinated. This technology could be the future of affordable solar energy. The self-described “late bloomer” had found his passion. And he found himself behind. His math-whiz classmates had been fast-tracked since high school, whereas he hadn’t reached beginning calculus. He buckled down.
In a “nervy” move, he approached the professor for a research position—and was refused. Undaunted, he pestered the man until he relented. Whitacre worked with his new mentor until graduation, sure that his next step was a physics PhD.
Finally, here he is in grad school. Miserable. He settles into a chair with his coffee mug. He rails to himself: If I’m going to work this hard, it should be for something that matters to me—that will take me somewhere. With instant clarity, he knows. He’s leaving.
He alerts his professors, stuffs his belongings into his Ford Escort wagon, and drives 24 hours straight home. He doesn’t know it at the time, but he’s made the most important decision of his life. Later, he’ll define that decision through a lifetime mantra: “Fail fast. Move ahead.”
Move ahead to the present. Jay Whitacre strides through the labyrinth of Aquion Energy headquarters. A tall, curly-haired, Energizer-bunny kind of guy, he is a professor at Carnegie Mellon with a mouthful of an appointment: associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering and of Engineering and Public Policy. He founded Aquion in 2008 to commercialize the fruits of his research—a cheap and eco-friendly battery.
He couldn’t be more at home here in this building in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, once home to a railroad engine foundry. He winds up, down, and through the three-floor maze, thrilled by it all. Here’s the hulking, clunking rotary calciner he snagged from a scrap yard, slowly spinning as it heats raw materials. Over there, the carbon processing room is caked with dust. Turn the corner to find an assembly machine with arms poised to piece together stackable, car-battery-sized units. Next door, Aquion has warehouses, inherited from a defunct Chinese trinket company. A solar-panel-wrapped shed out back tests a parade of batteries.
Aquion has a bold mission: change the way the world uses energy. There’s a lot of interest—especially in remote parts of the developing world—in microgrid energy systems. Microgrids offer localized power production, more recently based on renewable energy technology such as solar and wind rather than diesel. The problem is that power from solar and wind is only available when the sun shines and the wind blows, respectively. For electricity around the clock, there must be a reasonable way to store energy. But lead-acid batteries used to store solar energy are unreliable and polluting.
Storage is just what Whitacre intends to provide with his aqueous hybrid ion battery. Aquion’s batteries contain no heavy metals. They are non-toxic and non-corrosive, can be short-circuited without causing a fire or explosion, and have a long life. They can be recharged each day and would still last 10 years.
“Energy technology is really important to society but really slow, hard, and expensive,” says Ted Wiley, Aquion vice president. “It’s not sexy. Not many people go into it. Jay is focused on solving a problem that matters.”
And now, nearly two decades after he hit the gas, heading home to Ohio, Whitacre—and Aquion—may be on the cusp of an energy revolution.
Back at his parents’ house, Whitacre wasted no time looking back. Realizing that the things that intrigued him hinged on new materials, he decided to study materials science and engineering—an interdisciplinary field that would help him have an impact on the world. At the University of Michigan, he pursued his PhD with an emphasis on thin film materials, then went on to a post-doc at California Institute of Technology.
When he got to California, Whitacre discovered that his position had been reassigned—to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Within a year, he was “set loose in the lab” and eventually trained as a systems engineer, an unusual move for a materials scientist but a typical move for a guy unaffected by traditional disciplinary boundaries. “You just go for it,” he says, now. “Just constantly leverage what you’ve done to reach a little bit beyond your horizon.”
In fact, he got to reach beyond Earth’s horizon. Whitacre was assigned to a team designing spacecraft, working on batteries for the Mars rover. Eight years sped by. Whitacre and his wife, a policy analyst for RAND, whom he married at the University of Michigan, welcomed the first of their two children. “Move ahead” soon came to mean a return east, nearer to family and a more affordable lifestyle. Whitacre found a tempting post at CMU. By fall 2007, he was settling into his Wean Hall lab.
The new professor was given a semester to begin his research. In a typically systematic way, Whitacre narrowed his focus. He’d stick to batteries, where he “really understood the nitty gritty.” He settled on stationary electrical storage for larger-scale residential and commercial needs, as opposed to smaller batteries for computers or cars. The right stationary battery, for example, could store excess solar energy produced during the day and provide needed electricity at night. It needn’t be cell-phone tiny but must be safe, non-toxic, long lasting, and affordable—technology that didn’t exist. In an unusual step, Whitacre began with the economics. He would use only inexpensive and abundant resources.
He spent a month in his fourth-floor office, cranking out cost analyses of various battery materials. The materials included one each for the positive and negative sides and one for the electrolyte that allowed electrical charge to flow. Whitacre started with the electrolyte. Acid, used in typical car batteries, is caustic and difficult to maintain. Lithium, used in cell phones and computers, is flammable and expensive. He chose salt water. The literature insisted that salt-water ions were too large for the task, but he had his own ideas. For the two sides, he then selected manganese and carbon—both cheap and plentiful.
Months flew by as he worked. The second semester began, and with it, his first class of graduate chemistry students. His tiny experimental battery was getting good results from the positive and negative sides—just not from the device as a whole. One late night during spring break, he sat pondering the problem in his cluttered lab. He paged through a chemistry text in preparation for his class. Absent-mindedly, he flipped to an elementary electrochemical setup, a standard cotton ball bridging the positive and negative sides. He paused. For his separator, he’d been working with a permeable membrane used in lithium ion batteries. He looked around the room. No cotton balls. Nothing cotton. Aha! Grabbing his hole-punch, he popped a small circle out of his T-shirt and placed it in his device.
Using the cotton, his battery was stable, charging repeatedly. “I remember going home, sitting at the foot of the bed,” he recalls. “I said to my wife, ‘I think I really have something. This might really matter.’ And she said, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ It took her months to understand what I meant by ‘really matter.’”
Last August, Whitacre held his breath as the Mars rover Curiosity made its descent to the surface. At 1 am Pittsburgh time, he sat alone with his laptop in the dark house. His heart pounded as the “seven minutes of terror”—those last few of the mission’s eight-month journey, most fraught with danger—ticked by. Powering the sky crane of the $2 billion project was a battery he’d led the design process of years before at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). He let out his breath—the craft landed.
He calls his journey since the night he destroyed his shirt a “ridiculous, wild ride” as well. Once he was confident in his “T-shirt battery,” Whitacre began his search for funding. He contacted CMU’s Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation to help him protect and develop his new discovery. Next, he called David Wells, a junior partner with venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who he had been discussing his idea with for several months. While at JPL, Whitacre had often consulted for venture capitalists evaluating new energy technologies. He appreciated KPCB as a firm that puts entrepreneurs first and has a deeply technical collection of partners and affiliates. Coincidentally, senior partner Ray Lane, whom he’d never met, is CMU board chair.
Wells promptly flew out to meet with Whitacre. He brought along a KPCB partner unfamiliar to Whitacre. Datasheets spread out over dinner, Wells concentrated on technical issues. The other partner, named Bill, peppered Whitacre with “completely off-the-wall, extremely intelligent” questions. Arriving home, Whitacre googled Bill. He gasped. He was Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems.
Within six weeks, Whitacre had a check for $1.6 million, securing funding for his university research. It got the ball rolling. Over the next couple years, Aquion was awarded a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and another $37 million in venture capital funding. “CMU and its Greenlighting Startups ecosystem encourage this kind of entrepreneurship,” notes Wiley. “Whether it’s a professor or a student, they’re very well protected and taken care of in that process. We got a lot of support.”
Last year, Aquion, a meld of aqueous and ion, honoring the battery’s salt-water origin, began construction on a manufacturing facility, retrofitting a former Sony plant in southwestern Pennsylvania. Aquion employs more than 100 people, expects to add another 100 when the factory is running, and hopes to employ several hundred in the future. They’re testing prototypes and expect commercial release this year. Any competition is years behind.
Ever cost-conscious, Aquion designs processes that borrow from existing technologies. For instance, the robotic arms assembling the batteries are also used in food manufacturing to pick up chocolate candies. In fact, before they secured funding, they still used stacks of undershirts for separators. “We knew that it worked,” Whitacre explains. “Part of the innovation thing here is when you know something works, you stick with it and innovate someplace else that doesn’t. Most sustainable technologies are not economically sustainable. I want this technology to sink or swim not only for environmental reasons, but because it’s economically right and better than any other solution.”
It’s technology that could transform our use of energy, starting by helping to provide reliable power to 1.4 billion people worldwide who don’t have it. But Whitacre can envision more. He sees a completely vertically integrated company—from manganese mine to battery—that could drive costs low enough to store energy produced on the grid itself affordably, reducing waste and stabilizing our use of renewables.
“Globally disruptive … and very possible,” he says
Melissa Silmore (TPR’85) is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to this magazine.