Executive summary: The highlight of my career to date is when we completed our first pilot production run. After years of solving tough scientific challenges, that felt like an inflection point that would allow us to rapidly accelerate our commercialization efforts.
What is your field of expertise?
I develop and commercialize new battery technologies based on new scientific discoveries and innovations. I am an expert in alternative energy storage options that work to accelerate the clean energy transition, making the much needed transition away from the industry standard lithium-ion. With safety issues plaguing lithium-ion use in stationary batteries, zinc provides a safe and reliable replacement source.
Describe your journey to where you are today.
Growing up, my primary aspiration was to be rich and successful. This led me to enroll in a Math and Business degree in University that I hoped would lead to a lucrative career in finance. I was lucky enough to land an investment banking internship halfway through my studies. It took less than 1 month on the job to realize I had made a terrible mistake — I discovered I had zero passion or interest in simply helping rich people get richer. This sparked a quarter life crisis in which I realized I wanted to focus my career on solving important problems. With a bit of research, I convinced myself that climate change is the most urgent and important problem facing humanity and that solving it would only be possible with new technology. So, I dropped out of my program and restarted school to study engineering. In my first semester I identified batteries as the area where I thought new innovations were most needed to enable decarbonization, so I decided to focus entirely on batteries. I became a research assistant at a battery-focused lab on campus and skipped almost all of my classes to spend time in the lab. After completing a couple of internships at a VC-backed battery start-up, I teamed up with one of the lab’s PhD students to commercialize a new type of rechargeable zinc battery he was working on. We launched Salient Energy in 2017 and I have had the good fortune of working on it ever since.
What does your company do, for whom, and how does it fit into the bigger picture of solving global issues with clean tech?
Salient Energy is developing a new type of rechargeable battery to replace lithium-ion in stationary energy storage. Our zinc ion battery offers the same performance and compact design as lithium ion, allowing it to be used as a swap-in replacement for the battery packs currently used in industry. By using a completely different set of materials to build our batteries, we can solve the two biggest issues threatening the rapid and widespread deployment of storage: safety and availability of raw materials. Our water-based design eliminates the fire and explosion risks that are currently challenging the industry. The materials we use to make zinc ion batteries are orders of magnitude more abundant than those used in lithium ion and are produced in North America. This means our batteries provide an alternative to the increasingly fierce competition for the scarce raw materials needed for lithium ion. The world needs to substantially decarbonize its electrical systems in the next 10 years to have any hope of eliminating GHG emissions by 2050. This will require replacing coal and gas plants with wind and solar power, and this is only feasible if batteries are paired with these new renewable electricity sources. Lithium-ion batteries are currently used, but the world simply cannot scale lithium production quickly enough to fill the demand from electric vehicles and energy storage. We fit into the bigger picture of solving climate change by providing a Li-ion replacement whose material supply chain can actually meet the needs of the energy storage industry, directly enabling more rapid deployment of energy storage and freeing up more Li-ion for electric vehicles.
What do you think is the most important thing we can be doing in terms of clean tech solutions?
First, we need to be honest about how abysmally bad the world’s response to climate change has been to date. The UN published its first IPCC report on climate change in 1990 that clearly described the threat it poses. In the Paris agreement, the world agreed that we need to eliminate GHG emissions by 2050 to avoid its most catastrophic effects. We’ve had 30 years to do our best and have 30 years left to finish the job. The world has increased emissions by 50% since 1990. Even worse, the world’s richest countries with the best capabilities to reduce emissions i.e. the OECD, have increased theirs by 10%. We’re halfway to a global catastrophe and have spent the whole time making the problem worse. I view this as an important starting point for identifying solutions because it clarifies how few options we have. Societies clearly lack the will and/or capability to reduce emissions at the size and speed required. Therefore we need to: A) dismantle global power structures and replace them with ones that take climate change seriously or B) develop new technological capabilities that make rapidly reducing GHG emissions affordable and easy. Given the limited time we have left, I view the first option as actually impossible while the second is only very unlikely. Our likelihood of success increases with the amount of people dedicating their time and attention to solving the problem, so we need as many people working as hard as they can to address climate change.
LinkedIn: Ryan Brown