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Harvard Research Team has Breakthrough on Battery Storage

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As the world slowly transitions away from energy based on burning hydrocarbons, from coal and oil to natural gas, the main problem after start-up costs that have hobbled a further acceptance of renewable energy sources has been their erratic power output – the sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow.

This shortcoming in turn has driven major research worldwide into battery technology to store electrical output when renewable power sources are functioning, to be released back into the grid when needed.

Now a research team of scientists at Harvard seem to have surmounted this bottleneck by developing a flow storage battery, based on organic materials rather than traditional metals.

The novel battery technology is reported in a paper published in Nature on January 10. Under the OPEN 2012 program, the Harvard team received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) to develop the innovative grid-scale battery and plans to work with ARPA-E to catalyze further technological and market breakthroughs over the next several years.

Harvard researchers and engineers Brian Huskinson, Michael P. Marshak, Changwon Suh, Süleyman Er, Michael R. Gerhardt, Cooper J. Galvin, Xudong Chen, Alán Aspuru-Guzik, Roy G. Gordon, and Michael J. Aziz lay out their concepts in their "A metal-free organic–inorganic aqueous flow battery" article, published on 10 January in the journal Nature.

The scientists describe their breakthrough thusly:

Solid-electrode batteries maintain discharge at peak power for far too short a time to fully regulate wind or solar power output. In contrast, flow batteries can independently scale the power (electrode area) and energy (arbitrarily large storage volume) components of the system by maintaining all of the electro-active species in fluid form. Wide-scale utilization of flow batteries is, however, limited by the abundance and cost of these materials, particularly those using redox-active metals and precious-metal electrocatalysts. Here we describe a class of energy storage materials that exploits the favourable chemical and electrochemical properties of a family of molecules known as quinones. The example we demonstrate is a metal-free flow battery based on the redox chemistry of 9,10-anthraquinone-2,7-disulphonic acid (AQDS). AQDS undergoes extremely rapid and reversible two-electron two-proton reduction on a glassy carbon electrode in sulphuric acid.

In layman's terms, the researchers have gone beyond traditional metal based free flow batteries, which have been around for more than three decades. Vanadium is used in the most commercially advanced flow battery technology now under development, but vanadium batteries typically cost about $80 per kilowatt hour.  Other flow batteries contain precious metal electrocatalysts such as the platinum used in fuel cells, which is even more expensive.

In contrast, the Harvard free flow battery relies on the electrochemistry of naturally abundant, inexpensive, small, organic carbon-based "quinone" molecules, which are similar to those that store energy in plants and animals.

Dr. Roy G. Gordon, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science, who led the work on the synthesis and chemical screening of molecules said, "The whole world of electricity storage has been using metal ions in various charge states but there is a limited number that you can put into solution and use to store energy, and none of them can economically store massive amounts of renewable energy. With organic molecules, we introduce a vast new set of possibilities. Some of them will be terrible and some will be really good. With these quinones we have the first ones that look really good." Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Alán Aspuru-Guzik used his pioneering high-throughput molecular screening methods to calculate the properties of more than 10,000 quinone molecules in search of the best candidates for the battery.

What scale are we talking about? Team member Chemistry and Chemical Biology postdoctoral fellow Michael Marshak said that if you had a whole field of turbines or large solar farm, you could utilize the technology with a few very large storage tanks, adding, "Imagine a device the size of a home heating oil tank sitting in your basement. It would store a day's worth of sunshine from the solar panels on the roof of your house, potentially providing enough to power your household from late afternoon, through the night, into the next morning, without burning any fossil fuels."

The Harvard researchers believe that their new battery could prove economical in storing energy for up to two days on a large scale and claim that the quinone battery already performs as well as vanadium batteries. In contrast to metal-based flow batteries, Professor Michael Aziz believes that quinone-based systems could cut the energy storage costs down to just $27 per kWh. In the prototype battery that the team has developed, only the negative side of the battery uses quinones, with the positive side using bromine, but the team is now working on a new version that solely uses quinones.

One thing is certain – once the Harvard team's research leads to patents, they will hardly be starved for funding from the investor community.

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Related article: GE Unveils Breakthrough Energy Storage Tech

Related article: The Grid Gets a Very Big Lithium Ion Battery

Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2014, at 6:16 PM, buzzltyr wrote:

    All the conservatives say government does not create jobs. Buuuullll, look at who paid for this.

    You want jobs, we need to start spending on R and D like we did in the 60s and 70s.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 10:11 AM, Mentallect wrote:

    Please don't sell it to energy or oil companies. It will just disappear forever like all other technology which decrease fossil fuel use.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 10:11 AM, Mentallect wrote:

    Please don't sell it to energy or oil companies. It will just disappear forever like all other technology which decrease fossil fuel use.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 12:32 PM, mbee1 wrote:

    While the hype sounds great, remember it is storing a lot of energy that if set off will burn your house down just like that electric car. And please get off that energy and oil company nonsense. You are just showing how ignorant you are.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 12:34 PM, mbee1 wrote:

    this research is not creating jobs. somebody outside of government will do that if the technology actually works but that tiny problem remains to be seen. Hype happens all the time, actual products come a lot later if at all.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 2:21 PM, masco23 wrote:

    @mbee1 lol i love how you try to sound like you're giving such a wise and prudent warning about it being explosive, when it is being compared to the size of fuel tank. what do you think is in the fuel tanks already in every home in America? a nice, safe, noncombustible fuel??? smh.

    then you say, this research is not creating jobs and that if they technology actually works someone outside of government will? wtf??? are you not able to make the leap that someone needs to know how to make something before they can make it? lolol r&d is worthless, never created a single job. ffs, some people.....

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 4:03 PM, dannystrong wrote:

    Let us wait and see on this. I recall breathless pronouncements like this over cold fusion. If it only stores for up to two days, what happens if all this added energy *isn't* removed from the system?

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 1:50 AM, dairyqueenabdul wrote:

    This makes so much sense now I am happy.

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 1:52 AM, dairyqueenabdul wrote:

    A Pakistani engineer made a car run Karachi water where the energy from water splitting was made to recharge the battery and the battery provided power to split water to hydrogen and oxygen. He found a perpetual energy machine but the big oil companies made him disappear.

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 9:27 AM, beta1709 wrote:

    Too bad current power prices are about $.015-.04 wholesale per kWh. Needs to be 1000x less expensive to make an impact. Does the author know what a kWh is or is it getting mixed up with kW of capacity. Sounds like a cool science experiment to try at least.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2014, at 3:56 AM, StACC wrote:

    @beta1709 I think you may be comparing different things. The article refers to energy storage costs, not the generation price. The problem with many renewables is that they generate electricity intermittently, and it costs a lot (read: much more than .27 per kwh) to store the energy until it is needed. All of that is currently built into the price that users pay for renewable energy. At least that is how I'm reading the article.

    It would be helpful to know what the current storage costs are for metal or Vanadium based batteries.

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