Organic mega flow battery promises breakthrough for renewable energy

Jan 08, 2014
Large-scale storage of renewable energy for use when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. Energy from solar panels is shown stored in green and blue chemicals in Harvard flow battery storage tanks, powering this green city at night without burning fossil fuels. Credit: Lauren Aleza Kaye

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 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.

To store 50 hours of energy from a 1-megawatt power capacity wind turbine (50 megawatt-hours), for example, a possible solution would be to buy traditional batteries with 50 megawatt-hours of energy storage, but they'd come with 50 megawatts of power capacity. Paying for 50 megawatts of power capacity when only 1 megawatt is necessary makes little economic sense.

For this reason, a growing number of engineers have focused their attention on flow battery technology. But until now, flow batteries have relied on chemicals that are expensive or difficult to maintain, driving up the energy storage costs.

A prototype flow battery in Aziz's lab at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.)

The active components of electrolytes in most flow batteries have been metals. Vanadium is used in the most commercially advanced flow battery technology now in development, but its cost sets a rather high floor on the cost per kilowatt-hour at any scale. Other flow batteries contain precious metal electrocatalysts such as the platinum used in fuel cells.

The new flow battery developed by the Harvard team already performs as well as vanadium flow batteries, with chemicals that are significantly less expensive, and with no precious metal electrocatalyst.

"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," Gordon said. "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."

Aspuru-Guzik noted that the project is very well aligned with the White House Materials Genome Initiative. "This project illustrates what the synergy of high-throughput quantum chemistry and experimental insight can do," he said. "In a very quick time period, our team honed in to the right molecule. Computational screening, together with experimentation, can lead to discovery of new materials in many application domains."

Quinones are abundant in crude oil as well as in green plants. The molecule that the Harvard team used in its first quinone-based flow battery is almost identical to one found in rhubarb. The quinones are dissolved in water, which prevents them from catching fire.

To back up a commercial wind turbine, a large storage tank would be needed, possibly located in a below-grade basement, said co-lead author Michael Marshak, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS and in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Or if you had a whole field of turbines or large solar farm, you could imagine a few very large storage tanks.

The same technology could also have applications at the consumer level, Marshak said. "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 team's results published in Nature demonstrate an early, yet important technical achievement that could be critical in furthering the development of grid-scale batteries," said ARPA-E Program Director John Lemmon. "The project team's result is an excellent example of how a small amount of catalytic funding from ARPA-E can help build the foundation to hopefully turn scientific discoveries into low-cost, early-stage energy technologies."

Team leader Aziz said the next steps in the project will be to further test and optimize the system that has been demonstrated on the bench top and bring it toward a commercial scale. "So far, we've seen no sign of degradation after more than 100 cycles, but commercial applications require thousands of cycles," he said. He also expects to achieve significant improvements in the underlying chemistry of the battery system. "I think the chemistry we have right now might be the best that's out there for stationary storage and quite possibly cheap enough to make it in the marketplace," he said. "But we have ideas that could lead to huge improvements."

By the end of the three-year development period, Connecticut-based Sustainable Innovations, LLC, a collaborator on the project, expects to deploy demonstration versions of the organic flow battery contained in a unit the size of a horse trailer. The portable, scaled-up storage system could be hooked up to solar panels on the roof of a commercial building, and electricity from the solar panels could either directly supply the needs of the building or go into storage and come out of storage when there's a need. Sustainable Innovations anticipates playing a key role in the product's commercialization by leveraging its ultra-low cost electrochemical cell design and system architecture already under development for applications.

"You could theoretically put this on any node on the grid," Aziz said. "If the market price fluctuates enough, you could put a storage device there and buy electricity to store it when the price is low and then sell it back when the price is high. In addition, you might be able to avoid the permitting and gas supply problems of having to build a gas-fired power plant just to meet the occasional needs of a growing peak demand."

This technology could also provide very useful backup for off-grid rooftop solar panels—an important advantage considering some 20 percent of the world's population does not have access to a power distribution network.

William Hogan, Raymond Plank Professor of Global Energy Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and one of the world's foremost experts on electricity markets, is helping the team explore the economic drivers for the technology.

Trent M. Molter, President and CEO of Sustainable Innovations, LLC, provides expertise on implementing the Harvard team's technology into commercial electrochemical systems.

"The intermittent renewables storage problem is the biggest barrier to getting most of our power from the sun and the wind," Aziz said. "A safe and economical flow battery could play a huge role in our transition off fossil fuels to renewable electricity. I'm excited that we have a good shot at it."

Explore further: New energy storage system for renewable technologies

More information: Paper: dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature12909

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User comments : 32

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Scottingham
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 08, 2014
How long does the 'charged' tank last if it isn't in use? Do the Quinones degrade?

In all, this seems to be well timed with the price of solar panels dropping.

Doesn't look like it'll be in a car any time soon though. The density seems too low.
markheim
4 / 5 (4) Jan 08, 2014
How long does the 'charged' tank last if it isn't in use? Do the Quinones degrade?

In all, this seems to be well timed with the price of solar panels dropping.

Doesn't look like it'll be in a car any time soon though. The density seems too low.


The future is going to be awesome.
axemaster
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 08, 2014
I have to agree, this sounds like a big step towards an all-renewables future.
Newbeak
1 / 5 (3) Jan 08, 2014
Donald Sadoway's technology is better,IMHO,and closer to implementation: http://www.ambri....hnology/
rsklyar
1 / 5 (3) Jan 09, 2014
Beware that a gang of Harvard "scientists" has already stole in Nature journals and, with further support of the MIT's ones, in ASC Nano Lett both the ideas and money of taxpayers. There are numerous swindlers from David H. Koch Inst. for Integrative Cancer Research and Dept of Chemical Engineering, also with Dept of Chemistry and Chem. Biology and School of Eng and Applied Science of Harvard University at http://issuu.com/...vard_mit & http://issuu.com/...llsens12 .
Their plagiaristic compilation titled Macroporous nanowire nanoelectronic scaffolds for synthetic tissues (DOI: 10.1038/NMAT3404) and Outside Looking In: Nanotube Transistor Intracellular Sensors (dx.doi.org/10.1021/nl301623p) was funded by NIH Director's Pioneer Award (1DP1OD003900) and a McKnight Foundation Technol Innovations in Neurosc Award, also a Biotechnology Research Endowment from the Dept. of Anesthesiology at Children's Hospital Boston and NIH grants GM073626, DE01-3023/6516.
triplehelix
3 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2014
I have to agree, this sounds like a big step towards an all-renewables future.


Ehhhh no.

For energy maybe.

Solvents, chemicals, plastics, and all other kinds of materials require crude oil to make still.

This is a small lab based experiment. I'll start getting excited once it has proved itself on mass size and stress tested on an actual real flowing grid, rather than a "hypothetical" or "theoretical" extrapolation of the small scaled experiment.

Many thousands of lab experiments show promise in the fields of science, but only the occasional few make it into a consumer market and mass produced, because many are never viable outside laboratory experimentation only.

It's great if it works large scale, but lets not get too excited shall we? Lot more work to do and lot more to be improved upon.
Shakescene21
1 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2014
Wow! This promising technology is targeted at the biggest barrier to solar and wind electricity. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this, including investment possibilities.
Shakescene21
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 09, 2014
@Newbeak. I agree that the Ambri technology is interesting and may have a bright future, but the technological challenge is so huge that it's worth it to pursue several technology paths. It may well be that there is room for both technologies in different applications.
Eikka
not rated yet Jan 09, 2014
"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.


On the short term.

There's still more you need to do to patch seasonal variability due to availability and usage pattern mismatches. Even close to the equator where the highest output of say solar power occurs with the highest need for energy in the middle of the summer, the two curves aren't exactly the same and you need to shift a couple weeks worth of power between the seasons.

Though it's perfectly workable if you have some long term dispatchable energy source, like nuclear power, to deal with the slow variations.
Cephas Atheos
5 / 5 (1) Jan 09, 2014
@triplehelix, no, quinones can easily be synthesised by organic compounds, most likely for trivial cost.

There's no reason to depend on oil or plant material at all. That's the great part of this experiment!
triplehelix
not rated yet Jan 10, 2014
@triplehelix, no, quinones can easily be synthesised by organic compounds, most likely for trivial cost.

There's no reason to depend on oil or plant material at all. That's the great part of this experiment!


Right. ?? That's great, but there are literally millions of hydrocarbon compounds, and many require crude oil to make. The technology where we can manipulate reactions on a bond-bond basis and make compounds from scratch without a starting material that is similar is many many decades away, if not longer.

Again, it may be possible on lab scaled size experiments, but mass produced for the entire planet of 7 billion people?

No, nowhere near. Again, great if it works supersized, but why get overexcited and jump to wild conclusions on something that has had average success at lab scale?

antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Jan 10, 2014
If the market price fluctuates enough, you could put a storage device there and buy electricity to store it when the price is low and then sell it back when the price is high

That sounds like right out of a batman movie (Batman Returns to be exact)

But I have to agree. This is pretty cool. A few larger deposits in each nation could stabilize the grid and function as an environmentally friendly 'national power reserve'. In conjunction with cars this could solve the problem of long recharge times (effectively eliminating range anxiety).

Again, it may be possible on lab scaled size experiments, but mass produced for the entire planet of 7 billion people?

You forget that this is a storage medium. It isn't used up and dumped into the environment (like coal, gas and oil). So you don't need to keep producing it once you have enough for everyone (just enough to account for accidental spillage)
Eikka
5 / 5 (2) Jan 10, 2014
The technology where we can manipulate reactions on a bond-bond basis and make compounds from scratch without a starting material that is similar is many many decades away, if not longer.


Most hydrocarbons can be made by first producing hydrogen, then turning it into methane by the Sabatier process, then turning it into heavier hydrocarbons by direct catalysis or by e.g. Fischer-Tropps process.

In fact, most plastics are made by breaking down oil into shorter hydrocarbons and then putting them back together into polymers. The most common plastic, polyethylene, is made out of gaseous ethylene (C2H4) which is made by steam cracking and then distilling oil.

Making ethylene out of methane works too, but since oil is cracked for various purposes, it comes cheaper as a byproduct of the petrochemical industry.

Eikka
not rated yet Jan 10, 2014
So you don't need to keep producing it once you have enough for everyone (just enough to account for accidental spillage)


And to replace worn out and contaminated electrolytes. Unwanted and uncontrolled chemical reactions in the storage tanks will eventually render the stuff useless because anything with chemical potential energy will be unstable in some sense, which is why batteries in general have a shelf-life that is measured in years.

And since they're organic energy storing molecules similiar to what plants use, you'll eventually get some kind of bacteria or slime mold etc. that evolves to eat it.
Newbeak
5 / 5 (1) Jan 10, 2014

And to replace worn out and contaminated electrolytes. Unwanted and uncontrolled chemical reactions in the storage tanks will eventually render the stuff useless because anything with chemical potential energy will be unstable in some sense, which is why batteries in general have a shelf-life that is measured in years.

And since they're organic energy storing molecules similiar to what plants use, you'll eventually get some kind of bacteria or slime mold etc. that evolves to eat it.


And that's why the Ambri solution is better.No organic materials at all.Simple inorganic chemistry.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Jan 11, 2014
And since they're organic energy storing molecules similiar to what plants use, you'll eventually get some kind of bacteria or slime mold etc. that evolves to eat it.

Man, you're really clutching at straws, aren't you?

Biodiesel is organic, too. And we have not seen large scale rot in tanks. People have been storing organic oils for milennia and no superbug yet that would eat through vats of olive oil.

And to replace worn out and contaminated electrolytes. Unwanted and uncontrolled chemical reactions in the storage tanks will eventually render the stuff useless

So? Crack it. Recycle it. It's not burned therefore you don't automatically throw the resulting 'waste' away as in the case of otherfuels (oil, coal,, gas). The amount you'd need to pump into a worldwide system to make up for losses would by a tiny, tiny fraction of the oil we currently need to pump out of the ground to keep us going. That's not going to be an option forever - as any first grader can tell you.
jackjump
not rated yet Jan 11, 2014
This or something like this is the answer to making renewable energy (mainly wind and solar) practical and competitive. I can imagine this in every home, if not coupled with a renewable energy source, as a simple storage device to handle power failures rendering electrical power in homes immune to all but major catastrophes. It sounds like it could be cheap enough for near universal adoption. I have not been a fan of renewables only because there was no practical storage device to overcome the intermittent supply problem. This could be that device. Since a tank of this could power a house overnight could it power a car for 200-300 miles? If it could then this could also be the solution for the use of renewable energy in transportation with very little change in the existing infrastructure . . . you would buy a tank of quinone instead of a tank of gas.
HeloMenelo
4.7 / 5 (3) Jan 11, 2014
How long does the 'charged' tank last if it isn't in use? Do the Quinones degrade?

In all, this seems to be well timed with the price of solar panels dropping.

Doesn't look like it'll be in a car any time soon though. The density seems too low.


The future is going to be awesome.


Only if you have a way to break trhough:

See...the catch is currently there is this giant chupacabra
sucking dry you know this gooyee black stuff from underneath the planet.

This chupacabra seems to have it's tenticles not only on the oil well, but also a few tenticles in government decision making and you know... everything that controls what we will see in the future... ( and you know...cough....it tends to favor the black gooyee stuff over scientific brilliance and new innovations...cough...cough...)
Gavilan
5 / 5 (1) Jan 11, 2014
An affordable, environmentally friendly, energy dense, scalable, and cost effective means of energy storage has been an applied technology for decades. Its called Hydro-storage.
Newbeak
5 / 5 (1) Jan 11, 2014
An affordable, environmentally friendly, energy dense, scalable, and cost effective means of energy storage has been an applied technology for decades. Its called Hydro-storage.

And what about areas without hills nearby?
rsklyar
1 / 5 (1) Jan 12, 2014
Could you please instruct me how to make some citation, like this: 'An affordable, environmentally friendly, energy dense, scalable, and cost effective means of energy storage has been an applied technology for decades. Its called Hydro-storage.'?
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 12, 2014
Man, you're really clutching at straws, aren't you?

Biodiesel is organic, too. And we have not seen large scale rot in tanks. People have been storing organic oils for milennia and no superbug yet that would eat through vats of olive oil.


No. You don't have to have the whole vat eaten by some bug. It's enough that you develop a biofilm inside the container, that it becomes contaminated enough that your fuel cell stack stops working or your engine breaks down.

I have experience of bacteria that start to eat polyethylene glycol water solutions in cooling and heating systems where the temperature never rises beyond 40 C. They love it there, and in a couple years the pipes are coated in goop.

And Biodiesel and olive oil do go rancid over time, which is caused by both bacteria and chemical oxidation. Especially SVO does not keep well. Even regular Diesel fuel does develop bacteria and yeast growth in hot climates, and more so if there's contamination by water.
Eikka
5 / 5 (2) Jan 12, 2014
For reference:

http://make-biodi...ity.html

Biodiesel can go bad when microbes digest it, when water hydrolyzes it, or when it oxidizes. When bacteria or fungus attacks biodiesel it is always at the place where water and biodiesel meet.

The NREL suggests that biodiesel be stored no longer than six months, since the older a fuel is, the more likely it is to break down


Mind, the problem with organic oils going rancid by bacteria is mainly due to contamination with water, because without water the bacteria cannot survive. Same reason why plain honey won't spoil. It kills bacteria by dehydration.

But here in the proposed flow battery, you have a water solution of organic molecules that are very close to what occur naturally in plants, which is exactly what bacteria, yeast and fungi really really like to eat.

So, there is a need to regularily replace and decontaminate the electrolytes. How much of a problem it is, we'll see.
RealScience
5 / 5 (1) Jan 13, 2014
@Eikka - yes, I have had the same problem with propylene glycol coolant. However there are anti-fungal and anti-bacterial compounds one can add. (Of course since one reason to use propylene glycol over ethylene glycol is that PG is pretty non-toxic, adding nasty anti-fouling agents sometimes defeats the purpose of using PG versus the less expensive EG).

Regarding the battery in this article, the trick would be finding anti-fouling agents that don't interfere with the battery chemistry. If the quinone solution would then last for several years, then that would match the thousands-of-cycles target. I get my septic tank pumped out every two years, so as long as the cost of reprocessing the solution is low then having it pumped out and reprocessed every few years would be pretty reasonable.

Newbeak
not rated yet Jan 14, 2014

Regarding the battery in this article, the trick would be finding anti-fouling agents that don't interfere with the battery chemistry.

Why in hell waste time looking for anti-fouling chemicals,when Ambri's system uses inorganic elements that can be recycled infinitely? Unless this process is more efficient than Ambri's tech,it is a waste of time.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2014
"Organic mega flow battery promises breakthrough for renewable energy"

-Well so does this:

"Jan. 14, 2014 BlackLight Power, Inc. (BLP) today announced that it has produced millions of watts of power with its breakthrough Solid Fuel-Catalyst-Induced-Hydrino-Transition (SF-CIHT) patent pending technology in its laboratories.

"Using a proprietary water-based solid fuel confined by two electrodes of a SF-CIHT cell, and applying a current of 12,000 amps through the fuel, water ignites into an extraordinary flash of power. The fuel can be continuously fed into the electrodes to continuously output power. BlackLight has produced millions of watts of power in a volume that is one ten thousandths of a liter corresponding to a power density of over an astonishing 10 billion watts per liter."

-I have been to Cranbury NJ. Nice place for a big crater.
shavera
5 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2014
Unless this process is more efficient than Ambri's tech,it is a waste of time.


While your endless spamming of one approach over another is admirable, science just doesn't work that way. Scientists are pursuing as many interesting ideas as they can come up with, just to see what we can do. If some of those pan out into technological innovation, and if some of *those* can scale up to production, then yeah, there's a technological breakthrough. But to say "well it's not more efficient than some known thing" just isn't how science is done.
RealScience
5 / 5 (1) Jan 14, 2014

Regarding the battery in this article, the trick would be finding anti-fouling agents that don't interfere with the battery chemistry.

Why in hell waste time looking for anti-fouling chemicals,when Ambri's system uses inorganic elements that can be recycled infinitely? Unless this process is more efficient than Ambri's tech,it is a waste of time.


I personally think that Ambri's setup has good potential, but that doesn't mean that other research should stop. Possible advantages of the quinone flow battery include cost, efficiency, scalability downward (liquid metal flow batteries are unlikely to scale down well due to heat losses).
david_king
not rated yet Jan 15, 2014
I love rhubarb. I hope we need to grow a whole lot of it for the quinone so the grocery store stops charging $3.99 a pound. Rhubarb pie makes an excellent battery when an aluminum foil "electrode" is introduced, unfortunately that renders it inedible.
Eikka
not rated yet Jan 15, 2014
Why in hell waste time looking for anti-fouling chemicals,when Ambri's system uses inorganic elements that can be recycled infinitely?


1) Recycling is never 100% effective because you do get systemic losses.

2) Organic molecules are made almost exclusively of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, sometimes nitrogen and sulfur etc. 1,2-Benzoquinone for example is C6H4O2.

That means they do not rely on some rare metals and minerals like vanadium or bromium. The raw materials are extremely abundant and cheap, and the waste materials are non-polluting and easy to dispose of. They can be simply burned to get rid of them. All that was pretty much pointed out in the article.

Eikka
not rated yet Jan 15, 2014
adding nasty anti-fouling agents sometimes defeats the purpose of using PG versus the less expensive EG


The problem is usually solved by adding more EG, because beyond a certain concentration (about 25% BV) it becomes toxic to most micro-organisms, but it's also a solvent for many glues, especially epoxies, and causes swelling and cracking in many types of plastics that come to contact with strong solutions of it, and it has higher viscosity and worse heat transfer properties than water.

Newbeak
not rated yet Jan 15, 2014
adding nasty anti-fouling agents sometimes defeats the purpose of using PG versus the less expensive EG


The problem is usually solved by adding more EG, because beyond a certain concentration (about 25% BV) it becomes toxic to most micro-organisms, but it's also a solvent for many glues, especially epoxies, and causes swelling and cracking in many types of plastics that come to contact with strong solutions of it, and it has higher viscosity and worse heat transfer properties than water.


I still think Ambri's technology is better,as the simpler the process,the more reliable it becomes:
http://www.ambri....hnology/