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Startup racks up investments to scale battery manufacturing at Meadowbrook plant in Holland COURTESY PHOTO

Startup racks up investments to scale battery manufacturing at Meadowbrook plant in Holland

BY Wednesday, November 30, 2022 09:05pm

HOLLAND — An equity investment from United Airlines Ventures could allow a startup advanced battery company to ramp up production in Holland via a partnership with automotive battery supplier Clarios International Inc. 

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Natron Energy Inc. today announced the investment from United Airlines Ventures, the venture capital fund started by the airline last year to invest in startups, new technologies and concepts to help it meet a 2050 net zero emissions goal without resorting to carbon offsets. 

Terms of the investment were not disclosed. 

Natron Energy is a producer of sodium-ion batteries aimed at industrial uses varying from electric vehicle fast chargers to critical backup power systems and other behind-the-meter applications. 

In May, the company announced a strategic partnership with Clarios International, a Milwaukee-based automotive battery company that Johnson Controls Inc. sold off in 2019 for more than $13 billion to focus on its core building technologies and solutions business. 

Clarios operates the Meadowbrook plant in Holland, where JCI formerly leveraged funding included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and other Michigan incentives to launch lithium-ion battery manufacturing. Coming out of the Great Recession, the plant was part of a more than $1.1 billion wave of advanced battery investments in West Michigan that also included an LG Chem plant in Holland. 

Natron expects to begin production of its sodium-ion batteries on existing lithium-ion battery manufacturing lines inside the Meadowbrook facility starting next year. The startup said it plans to offer the first mass-produced sodium-ion battery.

Natron founder and CEO Colin Wessells has said the partnership in Holland will allow the company to transition “from product development to serving our customers at a massive scale.” 

According to Natron, sodium-ion batteries have several advantages over other advanced technologies like lithium-ion batteries because they contain abundant, easily sourced materials that aren’t subject to supply volatility; do not require any lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper or conflict minerals; and are not dependent on foreign mining. 

The company also claims the batteries are non-flammable and safer for high usage situations. 

In a statement, United Airlines Ventures said Natron’s technology has the potential to help United reduce greenhouse gas emissions stemming from its ground operations. The airline currently operates more than 12,000 pieces of motorized ground equipment, about one-third of which are electric. 

“Natron’s sodium-ion batteries will help the aviation industry achieve its decarbonization and EV goals,” Wessells said in today’s announcement. “Our batteries provide the high power over short distances that ground service equipment needs, and unlike lithium-ion, Natron’s batteries are completely nonflammable and can be safely deployed into ground service operations.”

Natron’s batteries could have applications for charging United’s existing electric ground equipment and potential future electric aircraft and in helping airport operations manage electricity demand. 

“Natron’s cutting-edge sodium-ion batteries presented an ideal opportunity to both potentially expand our sustainability investment portfolio to our ground operations, and to help make our airport operations more resilient,” Michael Leskinen, president of United Airline Ventures, said in a statement. 

In addition to United Airlines Ventures, Natron has attracted several investments this year. Earlier in November, global energy trader Mercuria, which is domiciled in Cyprus and operated out of Geneva, Switzerland, made an undisclosed investment in the company. The company also received investments this year from Denver, Colo.-based Liberty Energy Inc. (NYSE: LBRT) and Bermuda-based Nabors Industries Ltd. (NYSE: NBR).

Previously in 2020, Natron was awarded $19 million in funding via the U.S. Department of Energy’s Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential (SCALEUP) program to further commercialization of the battery technology. 

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