A major obstacle to the widespread use of solar and wind power to supply the grid is the problem of storing the energy produced at a low enough cost. Energy generated by the wind and the sun is subject to unpredictable fluctuations. Until now, the cost of batteries large enough to smooth out these swings in production has made the technology relatively uneconomic.
The US federal government recognizes the importance of the problem and the Department of Energy has set up the Batteries and Energy Storage Hub - the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) - specifically to focus on the issue of power storage for alternative technologies. Any new technology supporting the use of renewable, non-carbon energy sources on a commercial scale is clearly of vital significance for the economy and for a sustainable future. It is the sort of development which players in the power industry need to keep abreast of through such agencies as Environmental Data Resources.
The flow battery The JCESR initiative has borne fruit: it has supported Stanford University’s Yi Cui and his team, in their work on a new type of battery. The new battery is an adaptation of the so-called ‘flow battery’.
Flow batteries use two different liquids, which can be stored in swimming pool size tanks, as anode and diode. They can easily be scaled up, with available space being the main limitation. The volume of stored liquid is the determining factor, as other components do not have to be changed to increase capacity. However, flow batteries utilize very expensive materials.The liquids used are themselves expensive, and they have to be kept apart by a membrane which is also costly.
A cheaper version Yi Cui’s team has adapted the flow battery to be used with cheaper materials: lithium and sulfur. Lithium and sulfur had previously been used in solid form in batteries but suffered from degradation after repeated use. The new type of battery is a combination of flow technology and lithium/sulfur technology. Like flow batteries, it has the potential for large scale use and durability, but it is much cheaper to make.
Instead of using different liquids for the anode and diode, the new battery uses one type of liquid only, along with lithium in solid form. The design is simpler, and there is no need for an expensive membrane barrier to separate different liquids. The lithium is coated with material to inhibit corrosion, which is much cheaper. The materials used, lithium and sulfur are themselves less expensive than those used in the conventional flow battery.
Next steps The prototype design has worked well in the laboratory. The next step is to produce a larger scale model, so that any problems in design and engineering can be worked on. Then, all being well, the team wants to work on engaging a power supply company in a commercial scale trial of the technology. It is early days for this technology: the work has just been reported in the May 2013 edition of Energy & Environmental Science. If it fulfills its promise of cheap, large scale, durable energy storage, we will have taken a step towards a more sustainable future.
About the Author: Tom Grant is a energy sustainability researcher. He enjoys blogging where he shares his findings to various environmental blogs.