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Aquion Energy set to start large-scale production of batteries

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Aquion Energy is preparing for large-scale production of its batteries that use saltwater instead of lithium to conduct electricity. The company will open a manufacturing plant in Westmoreland County this year to manufacture the sodium-ion batteries. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Aquion Energy founder Jay Whitacre show's the company's Pittsburgh headquarters in Lawrenceville. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

A Pittsburgh company that invented a unique battery is changing the way we store energy.

With a plant slated to open in Westmoreland County this year, Aquion Energy is preparing for large-scale production of its batteries that use saltwater instead of lithium to conduct electricity.

This makes them safe, long-lasting and environmentally friendly.

“It's pretty exciting to see something go from literally nothing to something like this in a handful of years,” said Jay Whitacre, founder and chief technology officer. “I don't think we can officially call ourselves a start-up anymore.”

Aquion Energy selected Westmoreland County in early 2012 as the site for its first mass manufacturing plant. Production is expected to begin in the second half of this year.

The East Huntingdon space once occupied by Sony will permit Aquion to expand. Its headquarters will remain in Lawrenceville.

“To make the products, you need a large-scale facility,” said CEO Scott Pearson.

In 2011, Pennsylvania provided $10 million from its Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program to convert the vacant Sony plant into a multi-tenant facility.

Westmoreland County Commissioner Tyler Courtney said Aquion's decision to locate there shows the transformed plant can attract small, local companies.

“It's great to have a company like Aquion coming. That proves that that method can work,” he said.

Aquion's cinder block-sized batteries are less toxic because they are saltwater-based. The batteries can become stationary energy storage systems for electricity generated by renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar.

In the past few years Aquion's workforce has quadrupled, and the company expanded in Lawrenceville. There, it developed and tested batteries to show potential clients that the product works, Whitacre said.

“The whole goal of this place was to prove we had something that was real,” he said.

Now, it is starting a “really aggressive execution phase” and hiring hundreds of people.

“It's absolutely necessary. It's the next step,” Whitacre said.

Whitacre started the research project in 2007 with Carnegie Mellon University's assistance. After promising results, he applied for a patent and founded 44 Tech Inc. with two others.

Renamed Aquion Energy in January 2010, the company moved to the Lawrenceville space. Investors, grants and loans have paid for the venture.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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