Power/Performance Bits: July 1

USC researchers have created a water-based battery.

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Cheap, rechargeable, organic
Intended for use in power plants and intend to make the energy grid more resilient and efficient, USC researchers have developed a water-based organic battery that is long lasting and built from cheap, eco-friendly components. The new battery, which uses no metals or toxic materials, is intended for use in power plants, where it can make the energy grid more resilient and efficient by creating a large-scale means to store energy for use as needed.

Sri Narayan, professor of chemistry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences said the batteries last for about 5,000 rescharge cycles, giving them an estimated 15-year life span. Lithium ion batteries degrade after around 1,000 cycles and cost 10 times more to manufacture. Such organic flow batteries will be game-changers for grid electrical energy storage in terms of simplicity, cost, reliability and sustainability.

The batteries may be a precursor for renewable energy sources to make up a greater share of the nation’s energy generation. Solar panels can only generate power when the sun’s shining, and wind turbines can only generate power when the wind blows. That unreliability makes it difficult for power companies to rely on them to meet customer demand.

With batteries to store surplus energy, which can be doled out as needed, that sporadic unreliability could cease to be an issue. Mega-scale energy storage is a critical problem in the future of renewable energy.

The new battery is based on a redox flow design — similar in design to a fuel cell, with two tanks of electroactive materials dissolved in water. The solutions are pumped into a cell containing a membrane between the two fluids with electrodes on either side releasing energy. The design has the advantage of decoupling power from energy. The tanks of electroactive materials can be made as large as needed — increasing the total amount of energy the system can store — or the central cell can be tweaked to release that energy faster or slower, altering the amount of power (energy released over time) that the system can generate.

The team’s breakthrough centered on the electroactive materials. While previous battery designs have used metals or toxic chemicals, the researchers wanted to find an organic compound that could be dissolved in water. Such a system would create a minimal impact on the environment and would likely be cheap, they figured. Through a combination of molecule design and trial-and-error, the scientists found that certain naturally occurring quinones — oxidized organic compounds — fit the bill.

Quinones are found in plants, fungi, bacteria and some animals, and are involved in photosynthesis and cellular respiration, essentially serving as the types of molecules that nature uses for energy transfer.

Currently, the quinones needed for the batteries are manufactured from naturally occurring hydrocarbons. In the future, the potential exists to derive them from carbon dioxide. The team has filed several patents in regards to design of the battery and next plans to build a larger scale version.