Quantcast

Battery Storage Breakthrough at Harvard Could Play Huge Role in Future of Renewables

Business

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the U.S. think they may be on the track of a new kind of battery technology that could store huge reserves of energy.

One of the great problems of renewable energy generators such as photovoltaic cells and wind turbines is that they can’t respond to demand.

Michael J. Aziz (pictured) and others at Harvard University have developed a metal-free flow battery that relies on the electrochemistry of naturally abundant, small organic molecules to store electricity generated from renewable, intermittent energy sources. Photo credit: Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications

When the sun is out, nobody needs so much heating and lighting, so the electricity goes to waste. In theory, surplus energy could be saved for hours of darkness or when the winds drop, but at a prohibitive cost. But Michael Aziz of Harvard University in Boston and colleagues report in nature that they have tested what is, quite literally, a solution to the problem.

A common low-cost organic chemical found in crude oil and in living things could, once dissolved in water, be used to fuel a flow battery, into which surplus energy could flow when the winds are high and the sun is shining and everybody has gone surfing, and then deliver stored power when everybody goes home at night time and switches on the light and the cooking stove.

In a flow battery, two solutions of electro-active compounds are made to flow through electrodes in an electro-chemical cell: they react at the electrodes and generate electricity. A membrane separates the two solutions, but lets through charge-carrying ions.

Promising start

The strength of a flow battery is that the electro-chemical conversion hardware and the tanks in which the solutions are stored are kept separately, so that the amount of energy that can be stored is limited only by the size of the tanks.

The downside is that, until now, such systems have depended on expensive electrolytes such as vanadium dissolved in sulphuric acid or even more expensive catalysts such as palladium. Professor Aziz and his colleagues did it with a quinone dissolved in water and very dilute acids, and without a catalyst.

A quinone is a simple benzene-based compound that comes in many forms and from many sources. The quinone in the Harvard trial was almost identical to one found in the garden crop rhubarb.

The flow battery under test delivered promising power density and good current efficiency. The test kit, however was only two square centimeters. The whole process is about 1,000 times faster than the rival vanadium system, so batteries could be charged and discharged so much more swiftly. The next stage is to scale the system up, and keep it running for many thousands of cycles to demonstrate its capabilities.

Not there yet

There is a long way to go. Safety considerations remain. The chemistry, too, could be improved. The dream is of a flexible system that could be used in large projects and small.

It could sit in the basement of a home and store the energy collected by solar panels on the roof. Or buried tanks could store the surplus energy from a whole wind farm. The authors say that the use of organic molecules rather than metals holds the promise of massive electrical storage at greatly reduced cost.

“You could theoretically put this on any node on the grid. If the market price fluctuates enough, you could put a storage device there and buy electricity to store it when the price is low and sell it back when the price is high”, said Aziz.

“The intermittent renewable storage problem is the biggest barrier to getting most of our power from the sun and the wind. A safe and economical flow battery could play a huge role in our transition from fossil fuels to renewable electricity.

"I’m excited that we have a good shot at it.”

Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Aerial assessment of Hurricane Sandy damage in Connecticut. Dannel Malloy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Extreme weather events supercharged by climate change in 2012 led to nearly 1,000 more deaths, more than 20,000 additional hospitalizations, and cost the U.S. healthcare system $10 billion, a new report finds.

Read More Show Less
Giant sequoia trees at Sequoia National Park, California. lucky-photographer / iStock / Getty Images Plus

A Bay Area conservation group struck a deal to buy and to protect the world's largest remaining privately owned sequoia forest for $15.6 million. Now it needs to raise the money, according to CNN.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
This aerial view shows the Ogasayama Sports Park Ecopa Stadium, one of the venues for 2019 Rugby World Cup. MARTIN BUREAU / AFP / Getty Images

The Rugby World Cup starts Friday in Japan where Pacific Island teams from Samoa, Fiji and Tonga will face off against teams from industrialized nations. However, a new report from a UK-based NGO says that when the teams gather for the opening ceremony on Friday night and listen to the theme song "World In Union," the hypocrisy of climate injustice will take center stage.

Read More Show Less
Vera_Petrunina / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Wudan Yan

In June, New York Times journalist Andy Newman wrote an article titled, "If seeing the world helps ruin it, should we stay home?" In it, he raised the question of whether or not travel by plane, boat, or car—all of which contribute to climate change, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers—might pose a moral challenge to the responsibility that each of us has to not exacerbate the already catastrophic consequences of climate change. The premise of Newman's piece rests on his assertion that traveling "somewhere far away… is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change."

Read More Show Less
Volunteer caucasian woman giving grain to starving African children. Bartosz Hadyniak / E+ / Getty Images

By Frances Moore Lappé

Food will be scarce, expensive and less nutritious," CNN warns us in its coverage of the UN's new "Climate Change and Land" report. The New York Times announces that "Climate Change Threatens the World's Food Supply."

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
British Airways 757. Jon Osborne / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Adam Vaughan

Two-thirds of people in the UK think the amount people fly should be reined in to tackle climate change, polling has found.

Read More Show Less
Climate Week NYC

On Monday, Sept. 23, the Climate Group will kick off its 11th annual Climate Week NYC, a chance for governments, non-profits, businesses, communities and individuals to share possible solutions to the climate crisis while world leaders gather in the city for the UN Climate Action Summit.

Read More Show Less

By Pam Radtke Russell in New Orleans

Local TV weather forecasters have become foot soldiers in the war against climate misinformation. Over the past decade, a growing number of meteorologists and weathercasters have begun addressing the climate crisis either as part of their weather forecasts, or in separate, independent news reports to help their viewers understand what is happening and why it is important.

Read More Show Less