These New Battery Technologies May Save Earth From Future Climate Catastrophe
Batteries make our world work. They’re in your remote, phone, laptop, and car. If we are to win the fight against climate change, we will also need them to power our homes.
Solar panels don’t produce a lot of electricity on a cloudy day, and they don’t produce electricity at night. Wind turbines do not produce energy when the wind is not blowing. We have other sources of renewable energy that do not have such limitations, such as hydroelectric power, but solar and wind will undoubtedly dominate the future of energy. We will have to deal with what is often referred to as the âintermittencyâ problem to end our dependence on fossil fuels.
Batteries can be used for long-term energy storage and keeping things powered up when the sunlight goes out and the wind stops blowing. As it stands, however, most grid-wide battery installations rely on lithium-ion batteries that can power your home for hours, but not days. The average American home requires about 30 kilowatt hours of energy per day. If there’s a week of overcast weather or barely a breeze, there’s a good chance you and your neighbors will just lose power for an extended period of time.
Jay Whitacre, a materials science professor at Carnegie Mellon, told The Daily Beast that lithium-ion batteries have improved dramatically in recent years. Most of the grid-scale lithium-ion batteries in use today hold a charge that could power a local grid for about four hours, but the storage capacity depends on its size. Lithium-ion is generally not used for long-term storage simply because of the high costs involved, Whitacre said.
And anyone who has seen their smartphone or laptop’s charge capacity decrease over time knows that lithium-ion batteries can be unstable and difficult to use in the long run.
Many start-ups are also working to produce affordable alternatives to lithium-ion batteries that could meet grid-scale demands and provide us with long-lasting energy storage.
A popular example is the flow battery, which stores energy in liquid electrolyte reservoirs. You can increase its storage capacity by simply increasing its size. This can be a bit impractical in high density communities, but placing a large battery next to large renewable energy installations like, say, a solar farm should be easy enough.
âThe larger your tanks are in a flux battery – the more material you have – the longer you can charge and discharge,â Whitacre said.
A huge draw to this type of battery is that it could be made of materials that are much cheaper than lithium, like iron. The Oregon-based ESS company recently installed iron flux batteries at a solar power plant in California earlier this year.
Another company called Form Energy, co-founded by the creator of Tesla Motor’s Powerwall battery, is working on a spin-off technology called iron-air battery. It discharges electricity by converting iron into rust; and it converts the rust back to iron to recharge again. Form believes its battery, the size of a washing machine, will be able to supply 100 to 150 hours of electricity to a local grid.
There has been a lot of excitement around Form due to its innovative battery technology and storage promises. The company raised $ 240 million in new funding earlier this year and is backed by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, in which Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have invested. Form is optimistic about the possibility of releasing its batteries at more affordable prices than current technologies, saying they could come to less than a tenth the cost of lithium-ion batteries due to the cheaper materials and others. factors. The company’s first project is expected to come online at a Minnesota wind power plant in 2023.
Donald Sadoway, professor of materials chemistry at MIT, and his colleague David Bradwell invented what is called the Ambri Liquid Metal drums. It stores energy using molten metals and a molten salt electrolyte. Ambri is working on deploying its batteries as part of a 250 megawatt system at a Nevada data center. Ambri is backed by Bill Gates and received $ 144 million in funding in August to market its batteries.
Sadoway told the Daily Beast that he believes Ambri’s battery can hold up to 24 hours of battery life. He also claimed that the battery would not lose as much capacity over time as lithium-ion batteries do in devices like smartphones and laptops.
âWe have a lot of data that shows that the liquid metal battery doesn’t fade like lithium-ion does,â Sadoway said.
Hydrogen fuel cells – which are not electric batteries themselves but can run in their place without the need for recharging – are another potential solution to the intermittency problem. These types of fuel cells, according to Sadoway, are currently too inefficient and expensive. But the Biden administration’s $ 1.9 trillion Build Back Better bill passed by the House and currently being debated by the Senate includes a tax credit for the production of hydrogen that could return the production of hydrogen to these very affordable fuel cells, which could make them a more viable solution.
“If that is successful, some people will be able to essentially produce hydrogen for free because electrolysis is quite inexpensive,” Whitacre said. If fuel cells can find support through renewable energy sources, “we’re going to see a different kind of storage,” he said.
The number of new innovations in energy storage space may seem overwhelming, but it’s a bit of the point: industry doesn’t need to pick just one to run a clean energy grid. , and a combination might actually be the way to go. There is “no silver bullet,” Sadoway said. Different storage options will become more or less popular as they prove to be more or less efficient and practical. Some will make sense in cities while others will be more appropriate for rural communities. New battery chemistries that haven’t even been tested yet are also surely around the corner.
âI think there is room for innovation,â Sadoway said. “No question.”
Whitacre said the real innovations that need to happen are those that reduce the costs and increase the efficiency of energy storage systems. The good news is, these types of innovations are not far off. Our energy storage technology is improving every year. Soon you might be powering whatever device you’re reading this about with a sun or wind charged battery.