A "Holy Grail" Breakthrough Moves Closer
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A “Holy Grail” Breakthrough Moves Closer

by | published March 19th, 2019

One drawback of renewable energy, according to critics, is the fact that while the sun and the wind are infinite, they’re not permanent.

And by that they mean that the sun is not always shining, and the wind doesn’t always blow.

I can admit that that is a legitimate concern when it comes to moving more and more toward a reliance on renewable energy.

However, as I have observed on many occasions here in Oil & Energy Investor, the “Holy Grail” of research in solar and wind power involves storing the energy generated.

In fact, an advance in storage would be a breakthrough of massive proportions for the power sector regardless of the source used.

While there have been some moves, the preponderance of electricity must be consumed as it is generated because of a lack of storage infrastructure.

Renewables have the prospect of revolutionizing the sector. But because solar and wind are intermittent sources of power (the sun isn’t always shining or the wind always blowing), backup traditional generation must remain on line, lowering the overall efficiency.

Storage is the game changer and that means battery technology.

Here’s what I mean…

The Two Requirements for Proper Battery Storage

Later this week, I am scheduled to review the most recent step in the development of a major new battery approach.

The initial phase of this project took place in Cambridge, MA. The next is at a research facility here in Florida.

As with advances of this sort, the main challenge is twofold: (1) arrive at a process that is reliable, inexpensive, and requires only components that are easy to acquire and apply; and (2) successfully scale it.

It is the latter objective that usually sinks advances.

Under controlled conditions, remarkable results can be obtained. But once you subject it to the real world and attempt to expand its application, most “advances” remain more pure science than applied.

In other words, you can’t bring the laboratory into the back yard.

Having spent my youth in theoretical physics (I received my first degree at 16), I have always loved to poke around in what bright folks are doing in research. This week, I am returning to a battery technology I initially commented upon in 2017. It has already accomplished meeting the first of my two challenges above – it is cheap, avoids rare earth metals, and has had some remarkable results in the lab.

Now is the initial field test.

This technology is still in development and will take time, but this could nonetheless be a huge jump. Proof of concept already took place two years ago at MIT, and if it can be reliably scaled, then we are all off to the races.

As it happens, the basis of the approach brings me back to my very early years, as I noted when I first described the battery approach in October of 2017.

This is what I wrote at the time

MIT’s Research Team Strikes Again

I won a science fair at age 12 by making a “perpetual motion” machine. It really didn’t do very much but was kind of cool.

It used ions in a closed container, running them through a charged screen between magnets. Since the charge was constantly changing, the ions repeatedly moved between the magnets.

By putting a simple drive shaft mechanism through the center, I could light a (very) low-wattage bulb… or at least make it flicker.

In fact, I called it a “flicker tickler.” Remember, I was only 12.

My childhood experiment was brought back to mind by the release of an intriguing report.

We may be looking at a huge advance in energy technology here.

See, the continued improvements in renewable energy sources like solar and wind have ushered in a serious conversation about what the energy balance will look like in the future.

This isn’t about any one “silver bullet” that will replace all energy sources. It’s not even about the death of hydrocarbons.

It’s about a single technology that will make energy sources – wind, solar, oil, gas, etc. – interchangeable…

The New Energy Balance Requires Better Power Storage

There will be a need for all energy sources, based on each one’s individual strengths and weaknesses – and as seamless a system as possible to move from one to the other.

Because the most efficient and secure energy environment is one that provides a range of genuinely different sources.

Yet this balance requires a wider range of alternative energy sources, and those need to be available when needed and interchangeable.

For example, take oil or natural gas. They can be held physically until used.

Solar and wind, meanwhile, cannot.

 

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Now, the latter two are quickly reaching grid parity with other generating sources. That is, the costs of producing electricity are now about the same.

The difficulty arises from the intermittent nature of the power produced. The sun isn’t shining continuously and the wind doesn’t blow all the time.

This prevents solar and wind power from being widely (and seamlessly) connected to a national power grid.

Overcoming this issue requires energy storage systems, giving rise to two major problems.

The first addresses cost and applicability.

Currently used storage systems run at $100 per kilowatt hour (kWh) or more and cannot be connected in many locations.

That’s very expensive, adding a large percentage to the total cost of solar or wind power.

It’s hardly a stretch to say that a breakthrough here – in terms of battery price and efficiency – remains the Holy Grail in the energy sector.

The second problem is the simple fact that there has been no effective battery system on the horizon to overcome these shortcomings.

That is, until now…

MIT Just Had a Battery Breakthrough

Last week, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reported progress on what may be a huge step in that direction.

On October 11, MIT-based (and U.S. Department of Energy-funded) researchers reported that they have developed an “air breathing” battery capable of storing electricity for long periods of time at about $20 a kWh.

MIT’s news release, meanwhile, puts it this way:

“For its anode, the rechargeable flow battery uses cheap, abundant sulfur dissolved in water. An aerated liquid salt solution in the cathode continuously takes in and releases oxygen that balances charge as ions shuttle between the electrodes. Oxygen flowing into the cathode causes the anode to discharge electrons to an external circuit. Oxygen flowing out sends electrons back to the anode, recharging the battery.”

Sounds strangely familiar to the 12-year old lurking somewhere in my memory.

One principal of the MIT project put it this way: “This battery literally inhales and exhales air, but it doesn’t exhale carbon dioxide, like humans – it exhales oxygen.”

Here’s what that means…

New Battery Technology is Dirt-Cheap – and Very Efficient

According to the researchers, a major issue with batteries has been the need to synthesize materials to increase the energy density of batteries (how much power you can store in a battery of a given size).

We can do it, but the materials required are inordinately expensive.

That’s where this air-breathing battery comes in.

By relying on sulfur and air, it’s dirt cheap.

The total chemical cost of this system is about 3% that of a lithium battery, but can store electricity for prolonged periods of time for a fraction of the cost now required by less efficient systems.

It’s a “flow battery,” where electrolytes are continuously pumped through electrodes and travel through a reaction cell to create charge or discharge.

Only this time, unlike with my winning experiment from when I was 12, the power contained in the system can light more than one light bulb.

Actually, it can light a lot of them.

And because the battery uses ultra-low-cost materials, its chemical cost is one of the lowest – if not the lowest – of any rechargeable battery to enable cost-effective, long-duration discharge.

Its energy density is slightly lower than today’s lithium-ion batteries, however, meaning that it takes up slightly more space per unit of energy.

While lithium-sulfur and lithium-air batteries exist today, the key innovation of the MIT research is combining the two to create a lower-cost battery with comparable efficiency and energy density.

Here’s the other neat consideration: Flow batteries are highly scalable, providing the ability to structure much larger systems than the current prototype (about the size of a coffee cup).

And here is where the connection to renewable sources comes into play: As the battery can discharge over months, it would be an excellent way for storing electricity from unpredictable sources like solar and wind.

Now if only I had patented my little “flicker tickler…”

Sincerely,


Kent

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