Imagine being able to power an entire island using clean energy. It’s a lofty ideal, but it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.
After all, the greentech sector is one of the biggest growth areas in the global innovation and startup space. Players are tapping into areas like clean energy, electric transportation, and agritech to address issues in sustainability and climate change.
For clean energy in particular to work, one component is indispensable: batteries.
“In today’s world, lots of batteries are needed for energy transition efforts,” remarks Avishek Kumar, co-founder and CEO of Singapore-based VFlowTech. The firm is a long-duration energy storage solutions provider that manufactures low-cost and efficient vanadium redox flow batteries (VRFBs), which are typically used for grid energy storage.
The company is currently working on a project that will let its batteries provide the power needs of Jurong Island, an area southwest of mainland Singapore that houses the nation’s energy and chemicals industry.
VRFBs: the future of batteries
The project started in 2022 when VFlowTech was awarded a grant to build, test, and deploy its VRFBs on Jurong Island.
The location presents many opportunities for clean energy to make a difference. After all, Jurong Island is essentially a massive industrial estate – home to refineries, factories, and offices that consume a large amount of power. VFlowTech comes into the picture as a storage solution for solar energy generated by other players on the island.
According to Kumar, VFlowTech’s proprietary battery system, named PowerCube, has the capacity to supply a 50 kilowatt-hour (kWh) load for 24 hours per unit. For context, the average family in Singapore consumes 12 to 17 kWh of electricity each day.
Within Jurong Island, VRFBs could be a better alternative to lithium-ion batteries, which currently encompass more than 90% of the global grid battery storage market.
Vanadium-based batteries have a lifespan of up to 25 years without capacity loss. In contrast, a heavily cycled lithium-ion battery would have a lifespan of seven to 10 years.
“Imagine if you have to power a building that has been designed to function for 25 years,” posits Kumar. “You have to regularly and constantly change the batteries, which means that replacement costs and other overheads will be higher if you use lithium batteries.”
He also points to the lower environmental impact of VRFBs, as fewer batteries need to be built in the long run.
Moreover, VRFBs are safer compared to their lithium counterparts, as the energy is stored separately from the converter. They also use liquid vanadium, which is not flammable – an important factor for a site like Jurong Island, where a fire could lead to large consequences.
However, on a place as energy-intensive as Jurong Island, VFlowTech is exploring ways to go bigger. It’s looking at using existing infrastructure on the island to store vanadium electrolyte, which will be used in the firm’s energy storage system. It’s also focusing on scaling the capacity of its batteries from megawatts to gigawatts per hour while reducing land usage, which is critical for land-scarce cities like Singapore.
In addition, VFlowTech aims to obtain high-purity vanadium from the island’s industrial waste.
The company is looking to fully deploy its solution on Jurong Island by the end of 2024.
Battery manufacturing still an uphill task
VFlowTech prides itself on being one of the few deeptech hardware companies building end-to-end batteries in Southeast Asia. However, the firm admits that manufacturing locally has its fair share of challenges, citing the lack of an ecosystem as a key obstacle.
“There’s an ecosystem for IT, an ecosystem for AI, but there’s no ecosystem for a battery company making things from scratch,” Kumar says. “There is government support through the IMDA Spark Programme and Temasek Foundation Grant. But in terms of an ecosystem, there are no material suppliers. We have proven the battery works, but getting that done was a big challenge.”
Talent is another concern – specific and relevant skills are needed to build and work on VRFBs.
A vision for a cleaner world
When Kumar established VFlowTech in May 2018, his primary motivation was to help build a solar-powered world (solar energy is the cheapest form of energy at less than US$0.03 per kWh) by enabling other companies to operate at net zero through his PowerCubes.
The company has since secured US$15 million in capital. It’s looking to raise another US$20 million to strengthen its R&D efforts and scale its manufacturing.
“There’s R&D to be done on finding an alternative membrane, finding a better way to refine vanadium, and developing software that enables the battery to do more functions like improve stability,” Kumar explains.
VFlowTech has also formed partnerships with other organizations to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy storage technologies overseas. Last year, it collaborated with Sing Fuels, a Singapore-headquartered bunker trading company, to provide clean power to rural communities in Africa.
The energy storage firm also formed a joint venture with Thailand-based Banpu Innovation & Ventures to develop next-generation hybrid batteries that combine both lithium and vanadium.
Locally, VFlowTech’s projects have extended beyond Jurong Island. The company recently announced that it has deployed a 1 megawatt-hour battery system on Pulau Ubin, an island northeast of mainland Singapore. This gives Pulau Ubin’s residents a reliable and consistent source of clean electricity, leading to a substantial reduction in the island’s carbon emissions and making it more self-reliant with its energy needs.
Kumar sees VFlowTech’s current efforts as just the first step in his vision for a cleaner world. He aims to support Singapore’s energy import sector as the country shifts toward clean energy.
“When that happens, they will need 30 to 60 gigawatt-hour flow batteries,” he says. “Our batteries have the potential to power a small island – if we scale the battery technology by 10,000x, we can eventually power 20% of Singapore.”
This article was first published by TechinAsia and republished with permission.