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Finally, a Better Battery!

That's the million dollar question.

That’s the million dollar question.

You know what technology hasn’t been able to keep pace with us? Well besides whatever tech the DMV uses, it’s batteries. Think about it, they are nasty, make a mess, are hazzardous, hard to recycle and weigh a freaking ton compared to the energy stored. Current battery technology is my number one problem with electric cars as it stands now. Between the weight, the resources, and the waste, electric cars are almost a wash. Not quite mind you, but almost.

That’s about to change, maybe not for the electric car, but for the energy grid. Right now power is pumped out as fast as it’s being used. There is no real storage anywhere for surplus power so it is made on demand for people to use it as it’s being produced. This use as you make it system has proven to be the bane of solar and wind, the two major renewable energy technologies we have. This problem combined with the lobbyists for oil and gas companies and you can see why we don’t have more solar or wind power plants.

But now scientists at USC have developed a water-based organic battery that is long lasting, and is built from cheap, eco-friendly components. Pretty cool right? Well it get’s better still:

“The batteries last for about 5,000 recharge cycles, giving them an estimated 15-year lifespan,” said Sri Narayan, corresponding author of a paper describing the new batteries. “Lithium ion batteries degrade after around 1,000 cycles, and cost 10 times more to manufacture.”

Mega-scale energy storage is a major issue, solar panels [as everyone knows] only makes power when the sun is shining. Wind died down? Well so did the electricity the wind farm was producing. Being able to store excess energy and [hopefully] cutting down on the inherent power losses in the current electrical grid will help us dramatically — if not completely — eliminate our need for fossil fuels to produce our power.

The new battery is based on a redox flow design – which is sort of like two fuel cell tanks full of electroactive materials that are 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 [have no fear I will explain that]. The tanks of electroactive materials can be made as large as needed – thus increasing total amount of energy the system can store – or [and here is that explanation] 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. This means that no matter how much power is needed at once, the battery can be adjusted to release it accordingly, unlike traditional battery technology.

The team’s big breakthrough came from the electroactive materials. While previous battery designs have used metals or toxic chemicals, Narayan and Prakash 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, or at least they hoped.

Through a combination of molecule design and trial-and-error, they found that certain naturally occurring quinones – which are, for those of you who didn’t click the link, oxidized organic compounds – fit the bill. Fun little fact, quinones are found in plants, fungi, bacteria, and some animals. They are also involved in photosynthesis and cellular respiration.

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 making them not only good for the environment, but for fighting global warming too! If that wasn’t exciting enough, the team holds several patents for the design already, they plan on building a much larger version for further testing and –with any luck– actual field testing. Do you hear that? That is the sound of clean, renewable, good for the environment energy knocking on the door.

Hopefully we answer.

Talk is cheep and if you are more of a cold dry facts kind of person you may want the full study, which thankfully can be found –here!

Yang, B., Hoober-Burkhardt, L., Wang, F., Surya Prakash, G., & Narayanan, S. (2014). An Inexpensive Aqueous Flow Battery for Large-Scale Electrical Energy Storage Based on Water-Soluble Organic Redox Couples Journal of the Electrochemical Society, 161 (9) DOI: 10.1149/2.1001409jes

2 responses

  1. Haha this appeared in my emails right underneath a “your fitbit battery is low” email.


    June 26, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    • Then my timing was perfect! haha


      June 26, 2014 at 5:24 pm

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