With growing political and industry commitments to clean energy, any move toward solar and wind energy will require new infrastructure. However, some current technologies can be recycled for the future. New Mexico State University Arrowhead Center client UpCycle Power aims to reuse old electric vehicle batteries for clean energy storage.
Sydney Lienemann, Ph.D., is the founder of UpCycle Power. With a decade of energy storage policy experience at the federal, state, and local levels, Lienemann said the idea for Upcycle Power started in Alaska, where she saw the reuse of everything due to necessity.
“In some of the rural communities, everything comes in and out by boat,” she said. “I noticed a lot of waste. But, when someone got a new refrigerator, they’d leave the old one out and someone else would use it. I wanted to see what this reuse idea would look like if it were done in practice with old batteries which could provide stationary storage for intermittent renewables like solar generation.”
Storage has long been a problem with renewable energy, particularly with the price point.
“When the sun is shining, or wind energy generates when the wind is blowing, it’s fine,” Lienemann said. “But if you want to be able to a reliable power system on those sources of energy, you really need energy storage. The problem is that energy storage tends to be expensive, which means a barrier that favors those who are more affluent.”
“In my career, I’ve worked on energy access issues: how do you make the energy system more equitable and how do you make sure you’re taking advantage of the full value of things like batteries,” Lienemann said. “When a battery comes out of a car at the end of its lifecycle, it probably still has about 80 percent of it of its initial capacity. It may not be able to have the range that you want for a car, but it can still store energy.”
Lienemann approached Arrowhead Center for help and moved through its pipeline of services. First, she took part in EnergySprint – a business accelerator for clean energy technologies – which is funded in part through NMSU’s College of Engineering Innovation and Commercialization for a Regional Energy Workforce (I-CREW). I-CREW is funded by a grant through the Economic Development Administration.
During EnergySprint, Lienemann was introduced to customer discovery.
“I didn't really know who our customer was at all. I had the idea, and ideas are great, but the market is what matters,” she said. She then became an NM FAST client to start looking for government funding.
“Both the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are an excellent way for businesses to fund innovations, and helping new applicants such as UpCycle Power navigate that process is a foundational reason that NM FAST exists,” said Del Mackey, Arrowhead Center senior economic development officer. “Working with Sydney over the past few months as she decided which agency best fit her direction and needs, and then supporting her on creating her STTR proposal, was a great pleasure.”
Lienemann was able to make a prototype of her renewed idea through the Foster Innovation Exchange (FIX) program, which operates at the Aggie Innovation Space in the NMSU College of Engineering. There she was able to design the racking system which will hold batteries.
Then through the NM FAST program, Arrowhead Center staff connected her to collaborators for her STTR grant: two optical engineering professors at NMSU, Olga Lavrova and Satishkuma Ranade.
“I feel like that much of the progress that we've made in the last year has been because of support from connections that we've made through Arrowhead Center,” Lienemann said.
“By going through the Sprint and FIX programs, Sydney knew who her customer was, what her value proposition was, and knew how her technology needed to move forward, which are all key components of a successful SBIR/STTR proposal,” Mackey said. “That holistic approach to development and forward progression is a great advantage to the thriving innovation and economic ecosystem in our state.”
Lienemann said, “We’re so lucky in New Mexico to have all of these incredible resources available to entrepreneurs. When I applied for a grant through the National Science Foundation, I received a ton of help from Arrowhead Center by them just reviewing the documents. It was just so helpful to have that support.”
Her successes culminated with UpCycle Power’s recent win at the Arrowhead Innovation Fund Pitch competition. But her victory isn’t going to drive her away from New Mexico.
“I'm very committed to staying in New Mexico. I love it here. My husband grew up here; we got married here. It’s a very special place,” Lienemann said. “Plus, we have some policy drivers focused on energy transition; this is a great place to be in the cleantech space. There's a real environmental and political commitment to see this transition happen.”