watches, phones, electric cars—
because it packs a lot of energy
into a small package. But today’s
grid-scale lithium-ion installations
typically can store only a few hours’
worth of juice before they need a
recharge. That’s sufficient to stabi-
lize a grid, in the event of an unex-
pected drop in solar or wind power,
until more fossil-fueled electricity
can be cranked up and wired out.
But it’s nowhere near enough to
flip the global power system from
fossil fuels to renewables.
Vionx contends its technol-
ogy offers one possible answer.
At three government-funded test
sites in Massachusetts, Vionx has
deployed prototype collections of
shipping containers that house its
flow batteries. They’re mazes of
pumps and pipes, of plastic and
metal, that Vieau himself describes
as “Rube Goldberg.”
In Shirley, Mass., a Vionx bat-
tery is waiting to be hooked up to a
field of Chinese-made solar panels.
When it’s up and running, it
should be able to store enough en-
ergy to power about 160 homes. I
visit the site on a late afternoon so
cold my fingers, as I scribble notes,
feel numb. To my eyes, accustomed
by now to lithium-ion batteries
that would fit in my backpack if
not in my pocket, the system looks
gargantuan. Not to Vieau. Vionx’s
systems, he says, need to be the
size of power plants to be viable.
“Otherwise, it’s a joke.”
Vionx designs and assembles
these systems at its headquarters
in Woburn, which looks more like
a commercial garage than a lab.
Scattered around it are tubs big
enough to take a dunk in, though,
given that they’re filled with bat-
tery acid, that would be unwise.
Shazad Butt, Vionx’s vice
president of engineering, gives me a
tour. He’s a car guy, having worked
for years at Ford Motor before
moving to A123 and later to Vionx.
The lithium-ion battery is “the
Ferrari of storage,” he tells me in his
flat Michigan accent. “This being
Vionx is based on technology de-
veloped by and licensed from United
Technologies. It uses vanadium,
RENEWABLE ENERGY THE RACE TO BUILD A BETTER BATTERY FORTUNE 500
WIRED FOR THE FUTURE
Vionx technician Cuong Tran builds a
control unit for a flow battery stack.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JESSE BURKE
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