Economically viable and reliable battery storage for renewable energy technologies

01/08/2014 - 00:00

A team of Harvard scientists and engineers has demonstrated a new type of battery that could fundamentally transform the way electricity is stored on the grid, making power from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar far more economical and reliable.

The novel battery technology is reported in a paper published in Nature on January 9. 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.  

The paper reports a metal-free flow battery that relies on the electrochemistry of naturally abundant, inexpensive, small organic (carbon-based) molecules called quinones, which are similar to molecules that store energy in plants and animals.

The mismatch between the availability of intermittent wind or sunshine and the variability of demand is the biggest obstacle to getting a large fraction of our electricity from renewable sources. A cost-effective means of storing large amounts of electrical energy could solve this problem.

The battery was designed, built, and tested in the laboratory of Michael J. Aziz, Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Roy G. Gordon, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science, led the work on the synthesis and chemical screening of molecules. Alán Aspuru-Guzik, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, 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.

Flow batteries store energy in chemical fluids contained in external tanks—as with fuel cells—instead of within the battery container itself. The two main components—the electrochemical conversion hardware through which the fluids are flowed (which sets the peak power capacity), and the chemical storage tanks (which set the energy capacity)—may be independently sized. Thus the amount of energy that can be stored is limited only by the size of the tanks. The design permits larger amounts of energy to be stored at lower cost than with traditional batteries.

By contrast, in solid-electrode batteries, such as those commonly found in cars and mobile devices, the power conversion hardware and energy capacity are packaged together in one unit and cannot be decoupled. Consequently they can maintain peak discharge power for less than an hour before being drained, and are therefore ill suited to store intermittent renewables. 

“Our studies indicate that one to two days' worth of storage is required for making solar and wind dispatchable through the electrical grid,” said Aziz.