From the rustbelt: An iron-based flow battery

May 25, 2011

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University are mixing cheap and plentiful iron in benign solutions to create a flow battery – essentially an unwrapped battery that can be scaled up to hold and supply electricity to a home or an entire community.

The goal is to produce a cheap and efficient system capable of storing energy from wind turbines and solar panels and supplying energy when wind wanes and the sun sets. The battery could also be integrated into a smart grid, charging up when usage is low then adding electricity when need is high.

Not only will the flow battery be cheaper and more efficient than current models, but much more environmentally friendly, the researchers say.

"We like to call this the rustbelt battery," said Robert Savinell, professor of chemical engineering at Case Western Reserve.

Savinell proposed an iron-based flow battery 30 years ago but the energy industry was more interested in other technologies. Now, with the move toward sources of intermittent energy and increased gird efficiency, such a storage system could be one answer to 21st-century needs.

Savinell and Jesse Wainright, a fellow chemical engineering professor at Case School of Engineering, have begun a three-year project to fine tune the chemistry, develop the cleanest, most efficient system, and build a working model proving the technology.

The Department of Energy's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, through Sandia National Laboratory, is funding the research with a $600,000 grant.

For large-scale energy storage, a flow battery has significant advantages over a standard battery.

In standard batteries, power and energy densities are limited by wrapping all the materials used to convert chemical energy into electrical energy inside of a single cell. The electrodes, which are part of the fuel, are consumed over time, leading to performance loss.

In flow batteries, chemical reactants used to produce electrical energy are stored in two tanks and the electrodes, which are not used as fuel, are housed in a separate chamber. The reactants are pumped one direction through the chamber to charge the battery and the other direction to discharge the system.

Power and energy density can be increased by increasing the volume of reactants.

The most common flow batteries are based on vanadium, a metal mined primarily in Russia, China and South Africa, and which has recently cost from $8 to $20 per pound in the pentaoxide form. , which is plentiful in the U.S., has recently been selling for less than 25 cents per pound as anhydrous ferrous chloride, or on a metal basis less than 1% of the cost of vanadium.

Vanadium batteries use highly-corrosive sulfuric acid for the electrolyte. For safety reasons, the researchers plan to use a benign electrolyte with a pH of about 4.

"Since these systems will be very large, we're very conscious of the hazards that could arise from an accident," Wainright said. "We're focusing our efforts on developing a safe chemistry; I wouldn't want to put anything in the battery that you couldn't swim in."

A large-scale storage facility that could accommodate a wind farm by storing up to 20 megawatt-hours of electricity would require two storage tanks for the iron solutions of about 250,000 gallons – or 8 railroad tank cars each, he explained.

A system that size could supply the power needs of 650 homes for a day.

Flow batteries can be a useful alternative to storage technologies such as pumped hydro and compressed air systems, which require large water supplies and land with mixed elevations, or access to airtight caverns, Savinell said.

When demand is low, pumped hydro stations use excess electricity to pump water from a river or reservoir to a reservoir at a higher elevation. When demand rises, the water is released downhill through turbines that produce electricity. Compressed air stations pump air into caverns when demand is low then release the compressed air through turbines to produce electricity as demand increases.

The efficiency of the systems can reach about 75 percent. Savinell and Wainright estimate the iron flow battery can reach 80 percent.

Sandia set a goal of creating new kinds of storage systems that would cost $100 per kilowatt-hour produced.

The researchers estimate, because of the low cost of components, that the iron-based would cost $30 per kilowatt-hour.

Explore further: Chemists create nanofibers using unprecedented new method

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Upgrading the vanadium redox battery

Mar 17, 2011

Though considered a promising large-scale energy storage device, the vanadium redox battery's use has been limited by its inability to work well in a wide range of temperatures and its high cost. But new research ...

Compressed Air Energy Storage: Renewable Energy

Mar 17, 2010

( -- Wind-power turbines have played an important step in renewable energy but now the future of wind power may be underground. By using compressed-air energy storage plants, air is pumped into ...

Giant batteries for green power

Apr 01, 2011

In the future, the growing amounts of solar and wind energy will need to be stored for dark or low-wind periods. One solution is redox flow batteries that can supply current for up to 2000 households. Several Fraunhofer Institutes ...

More safety for cell phone batteries

Apr 10, 2008

Fraunhofer researchers will be presenting a novel lithium-ion battery at Hannover Messe on April 21 - 25. It is based on a polymer electrolyte, which is – unlike the liquid electrolyte in conventional lithium-ion batteries ...

Recommended for you

Free pores for molecule transport

3 hours ago

Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) can take up gases similar to a sponge that soaks up liquids. Hence, these highly porous materials are suited for storing hydrogen or greenhouse gases. However, loading of many ...

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.3 / 5 (3) May 25, 2011
The concern for the environment is commendable, but has anyone considered the impact of using such a large amount of *water*, if such batteries are rolled out across the world?
not rated yet May 25, 2011
IF this works then why couldn't the charged liquid be pumped through pipelines to where it was needed and returned through the same pipeline to be recharged. Trainloads could be sent to disaster areas to generate needed power. Wow! the possibilities are mindboggling.

5 / 5 (1) May 25, 2011
Who wants to go swimming down at the town battery? (Would it need chlorine? ;)

@Pattern_chaser: 250,000 gallons / (650 homes * 3 people / home) / 10-year lifetime of sealed electrolyte system = 13 gallons or 50 liters per person per year.

So, there is some increased usage, but even though the world already faces serious water shortage, a few toilet flushes per year doesn't seem like a major new impact on water planning, especially since the demand would phase-in before ramping up.

@Greene: I suspect it's better to keep the two electrolyte solutions close together to minimize pumping and pipeline costs. And for emergencies, it might be better to ship the solid compounds and mix on-site with whatever water is available, even non-potable water, in single-use tanks because water is so expensive to transport.
not rated yet May 26, 2011
This has big problems. If the electrolite is so weak you can swim in it the plate area will have to be the size of several football fields to conduct a useful amount of electrical current. The 250000 gallons of solution A and the 250000 gallons of solution B will take two large tanks and two large pumps that will need power, (80% efficiency ?). It would be better to use the nickle-iron or edison rechargable battery that would not require pumps or tanks and takes up less space. Thomas edison powered an electric car with this battery and it was used in many applications.
not rated yet May 26, 2011
IF this works then why couldn't the charged liquid be pumped through pipelines to where it was needed and returned through the same pipeline to be recharged.

Oil and gas pipelines exist because oil and gas is very energy dense; it is not worth pumping this stuff more than a very short distance.

"Trainloads could be sent to disaster areas to generate needed power."

The oil or electricity required to move the trains will be far greater than the energy actually delivered. You would be much better off sending a few cars of petroleum or sending electricity.