Could Iron Range iron power the storage battery of the future?

A large-scale battery that stores and then delivers wind and solar energy for days to electrical utility customers, could someday be powered by iron from Minnesota’s Iron Range.

The rechargeable iron-air battery is capable of supplying electricity when needed for 100 hours at costs competitive with conventional power plants, according to developer Form Energy, Inc., of Boston, Mass.

The battery will be tested in a pilot project in Minnesota through a Form Energy partnership with Great River Energy of Maple Grove, Minn.

If successful, the battery storage system could help transform America’s ability to store and deliver electrical energy reliably and affordably.

“This battery is designed to be the kind of battery that allows wind and solar to replace some gas and all the coal on the grid,” Ted Wiley, Form Energy president said. “All the generation that currently is provided by gas and coal could be provided by renewable energy without trade-offs in cost and reliability.”

The battery is made from iron.

Iron is abundant on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

Six taconite plants across the region produce nearly 40 million tons of iron ore pellets per year. The pellets are used to make steel.

Although still undetermined, the potential exists for Iron Range iron to be used in manufacturing the batteries.

“We have determined that the iron input materials that eventually become steel work great in batteries,” Wiley said. “An iron-air battery can use many different types of iron. The ultimate determinant of what we use will be the cost and the performance it has in our battery system.”

A Form Energy battery that will store and deliver one megawatt of electrical power is planned to be in operation by 2023. The battery will be located adjacent to a Great River Energy natural gas peaking plant in Cambridge, Minn.

The battery in Cambridge will be tested for about a year, Wiley said.

If the battery delivers electricity as planned, Great River Energy would look to partner with Form Energy to site a 300 megawatt iron-air battery in northern Minnesota, Jon Brekke, Great River Energy vice president and chief power supply officer said.

“We are going to be evaluating a 300 megawatt battery for northern Minnesota on the Iron Range around 2030,” Brekke said. “With the major transformation (to renewable energy) that’s occurring, we see long duration storage as a solution to the future.”

The ability to store and deliver renewable energy in large volumes for extended periods is a goal that the nation’s power industry has been seeking to achieve.

During times of high electrical demand, such as during a frigid polar vortex or in sweltering summer heat, energy storage is critical in being able to continue to provide power to customers reliably and at affordable rates, Brekke said.

“We will take power from the grid at times of abundance and discharge when prices or energy demand is high,” Brekke said of the battery system. “This will be one megawatt, but the real key is to get up to a scale of 300 megawatts or more. If you have 300 megawatts of storage you can provide more reliability.”

The iron-air battery can deliver low-cost, long-duration power at less than one-tenth the cost of lithium-ion batteries, according to Form Energy.

Form Energy intends to source domestic iron for its batteries, the company says.

“We would include all iron ore operations and that includes northern Minnesota,” Wiley said.

The company is beginning to engage in conversations with northeastern Minnesota’s iron ore industry about potential iron sources, Wiley said.

Form Energy also plans to manufacture battery systems near locations where its large batteries are sited, according to the company.

Steelmaker ArcelorMittal is supporting the technology through its Xcarb innovation fund. The fund invests in breakthrough technologies that accelerate the steel industry’s transition to carbon neutral steelmaking.

Minnesota’s renewable energy portfolio, its diverse weather, Great River Energy’s large rural customer base, and the Iron Range’s vast iron reserves, make Minnesota the perfect location for a pilot project and larger battery system, according to Form Energy and Great River Energy.

“That’s why we’re so excited about this project,” Brekke said. “The deep ties to Minnesota and the iron we have here.”

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