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Harvard Researchers Hail Cost-Effective Battery That Could Store Surplus Wind and Solar Power

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The dream of a home battery—cheap, durable, safe and as big as you like—that could store solar or wind power is a step nearer reality.

High-capacity batteries will make wind and solar power viable energy sources. Photo credit: Ed Suominen / Flickr

Researchers from Harvard University in the U.S. report that they have tested a “flow battery” that uses cheap and abundant chemical elements, can be operated with plastic components, will not catch fire and can operate at 99 percent efficiency.

Such batteries could be used to save and store surplus wind and solar power, which could then be used at times when neither form of renewable energy can deliver.

The latest advances are based on technology already tested by the same engineers, but made more attractive with a switch to chemical components that are non-toxic, non-flammable and safe for use in homes and offices.

Electrical Action

Typically, flow batteries have exploited a metal, such as vanadium, dissolved in acid to deliver electrical action.

Kaixiang Lin, a chemistry student at Harvard, Michael Marshak, now assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado, Boulder and colleagues report in Science journal that, instead of costly and difficult-to-handle metals, they have tested naturally-occurring, carbon-based molecules called quinines for the negative electrolyte component of the battery.

They had started their experiments with bromine-based electrolyte for the positive ions, but bromine is toxic and volatile. So they replaced it with a non-toxic, non-corrosive ion called ferrocyanide.

“It sounds bad because it has the word cyanide in it,” Dr Marshak says. “Cyanide kills you because it binds very tightly to iron in your body. In ferrocyanide, it’s already bound to iron, so it’s safe. In fact, ferrocyanide is commonly used as a food additive and also as a fertilizer.”

The combination of a common organic dye and a cheap food additive in alkaline, rather than acidic solutions, meant that the researchers could increase their battery voltage by 50 percent.

It also means—at least in principle—that a domestic residence could store its own surplus solar or wind power and keep the refrigerator or the central heating running after sunset or on windless days. How much a house could store would depend only on the size of the tanks that held the two electrolytes.

“This is chemistry I’d be happy to put in my basement,” says Michael Aziz, a professor of materials and energy technologies at Harvard, who has led the research. “The non-toxicity and the cheap, abundant materials placed in water solution mean that it’s safe. It can’t catch fire—and that’s huge when you are storing large amounts of electrical energy anywhere near people.”

The improved flow battery stores energy in liquids contained in external tanks (here in red and green). Photo credit: Kaixiang Lin / Harvard University

The storage problem has consistently been held against investment in solar and wind energy, but a safe, cheap and capacious technology could change the economics of renewable power generation.

Paradoxically, another group of researchers from the same university have, in the same week, argued that the storage shortfall might be a non-problem.

Hossein Safaei and David Keith, of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard, report in the Energy & Environmental Science journal that the supply of wind and solar power could be increased tenfold without any additional storage.

Energy Shortfall

Even though wind and solar power deliver energy intermittently, relatively-low carbon gas turbines and zero-carbon sources—such as nuclear, hydropower and biomass—could be used to make up the shortfall.

The researchers do not argue that better batteries would be of no advantage. Their case is that the absence of better batteries need not and should not, stop investment in renewables.

They are not the first to argue this. At least one group has calculated that the U.S. could get 99 percent of its energy from zero-carbon sources.

“We’re trying to knock out a salient policy meme that says you can’t grow variable renewables without a proportionate increase in storage,” Professor Keith says.

“We could cut electric sector carbon emissions to less than a third of their current levels using variable renewable, with natural gas to manage the intermittency. But this will require us to keep growing the electricity transmission infrastructure.”

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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