ICL bets on bromine for energy storage

Israel Chemicals Ltd. is investing in zinc bromide flow battery technology from companies like Primus Power and Redflow in a bid to grow the energy storage bromine market. Photo credit: ICL

Israel Chemicals Ltd is investing in zinc bromide flow battery technology from companies like Primus Power and Redflow in a bid to grow the energy storage bromine market. Photo: ICL

By Jason Deign

The manufacturing giant Israel Chemicals Ltd (ICL) is looking to support flow battery vendors in order to extend the market for bromine supplies.

The support will be in the form of energy storage deployments alongside ICL’s manufacturing centres and improvements to bromine compounds used by flow battery makers, said Charles Weidhas, CEO of ICL Industrial Products.

ICL is not considering flow battery company acquisitions at present, he told Energy Storage Report. “We are now talking to battery companies to see what we can do to support larger-scale applications,” Weidhas said.

“The thing that’s attractive for us is that we’re in the bromine business, and looking for ways to grow bromine. All analysts are optimistic that more and more batteries are going to be used.”

Last month ICL announced that it had installed a Primus Power EnergyCell zinc bromide-based flow battery at a manufacturing site in Rancho Cucamonga, California, USA, dedicated to the production of fire retardants.

Demand charge reduction

The flow battery is being used for demand charge reduction, storing energy during low electricity price periods and discharging it to cut grid consumption during peak hours.

“ICL anticipates that the behind-the-meter battery deployment will yield a 16% reduction to its annual operating expenses, with no impact to the facility’s operations,” said the company in a press statement.

Weidhas said the Primus system was acquired on a commercial basis even though the bromine for the flow battery came from ICL.

More installations such as this are likely to occur as ICL extends its support for zinc bromide flow battery vendors, Weidhas confirmed.

“We have some large sites around the world in places where you might have a certain energy imbalance,” he commented.

Power-purchase agreements

He said a “hypothetical example” of how ICL could encourage flow battery adoption might be for the company to specify energy storage within its manufacturing plant power-purchase agreements.

While ICL’s support for flow battery makers appears to stop short of direct investments such as acquisitions or joint marketing initiatives, the company has a clear motivation for backing zinc-bromide flow battery makers.

Thanks to mineral rights in the Dead Sea, ICL Industrial Products is the world’s leading manufacturer of elemental bromine. It has a “very low-cost bromine supply,” said Weidhas.

But the Industrial Products business has been hit by decreasing demand for brominated flame retardants, the main industrial product for bromine.

As a result, revenues were down 14% across ICL Industrial Products in third-quarter financial results released last week. The unit has embarked on cost-cutting measures designed to save USD$23m a year in 2016.

Ways to boost revenue

In the search for new ways to boost revenue, ICL bosses have evidently seen studies such as the December 2014 Lux Research report that predicts flow batteries could be a $190m market by 2020, accounting for 360MWh of storage.

However, that same report points out that most of the flow batteries deployed to date use vanadium, not bromine.

And while zinc bromide chemistries may be cheaper, “questions remain surrounding their lifetime and operating costs,” the analysts say.

In fact, ICL may have its work cut out finding zinc bromide flow battery partners, since there are only a limited number of companies that specialise in the technology. Arguably the most successful so far are Primus and Redflow.

Primus pulled in $25m in Series D funding in September and is due to build 25MW/100MWh of storage in Kazakhstan.

Storage currently in operation

That is a massive amount in comparison with the level of flow battery storage currently in operation, but by the same token the energy storage market in Kazakhstan is completely untested, casting uncertainty over the order.

Meanwhile Redflow, of Australia, has extended its reach to Europe on the back of a June AUD$16.1m funding round and a tie-up with US-based Flextronics International.

A third zinc-bromide flow battery manufacturer of note, EnSync, wowed investors with the announcement of up to USD$120m in orders in July but unveiled growing year-on-year losses this week.

All told, flow batteries still lag far behind their traditional brethren when it comes to grid-scale storage, and because of their large size they are generally unsuited to residential or even commercial and industrial settings.

And even within this rather tight energy storage niche, bromine-based chemistries are not exactly frontrunners yet.

So while it makes sense for suppliers such as ICL to view the segment with interest, it may take more than a few more power plant orders to really get zinc-bromide flow batteries moving.

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