I was ready to try something different and instead of advising people on how to run a business, I wanted to roll my sleeves up and do it myself.
Phil Giudice is CEO of AMBRI, a Boston-based startup chasing the Holy Grail of renewable energy: cheap, reliable, and massively scalable electricity storage. The company’s solution is a new liquid-metal battery technology developed in the MIT laboratory of co-founder Donald Sadoway, who was inspired by an industry where scale makes all the difference.
“Don looked at the electrochemical process of an aluminum smelter, which takes tremendous amounts of electricity off the grid and turns dirt—bauxite—into pure metal at 50 cents a pound,” Giudice says. Sadoway and his team found a way to reverse that process, unlocking the potential for a new type of battery that stores energy in layers of molten metal and salt.
The batteries have no moving parts, the ingredients are abundant and cheap, and the design is immune from the capacity fade that plagues competing technologies such as lithium-ion. Those qualities attracted great interest from the U.S. Department of Energy and heavy-hitting technology investors like Vinod Khosla and Bill Gates, who learned of the technology after anonymously auditing one of Sadoway’s courses online.
When Giudice joined AMBRI as CEO in 2011, the going rate for grid-level storage was about $1,000 per kilowatt-hour. That number has since plummeted to $273 for lithium-ion, eroding the venture’s initial cost advantage and forcing the team to develop an even lower-cost chemistry. The new ingredients are a close-held secret, though Giudice allows that they are abundant and cheap, in keeping with an observation Sadoway makes in a TED Talk viewed 1.2 million times. “If you want to make something dirt cheap,” he says, “make it out of dirt.”
Giudice knows plenty about dirt. He started as an energy geologist, earning a master’s in the field before coming to Tuck “to get my union card to do more than just geology.” He spent 17 years as an energy consultant, until the September morning in New York when he watched the World Trade Center's twin towers come down. His firm, Marsh & McLennan, lost 295 people that day.
“I was ready to try something different and instead of advising people on how to run a business, I wanted to roll my sleeves up and do it myself,” says Giudice, who did a turn as board member and SVP at EnerNOC and later as energy undersecretary for the state of Massachusetts before joining AMBRI, where his mission is nothing less than transforming one of the most deeply entrenched industries on the planet.
The cost of wind and solar has fallen through the floor in recent years, with no end in sight. The problem is that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Intermittency exacerbates the long-standing challenge of matching electricity generation to demand using a grid that Giudice likens to a supply chain without any warehouses.
“It’s been that way since the time of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse,” he says, “but batteries we intend to deliver will change all of that.”
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