Go with the Flow: A Battery Technology that May Really Make Sense

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Go with the Flow: A Battery Technology that May Really Make Sense

Most people are familiar with lithium-ion batteries, which power billions of portable electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops. But to this point, very few have heard of flow batteries, which offer the potential to revolutionize both energy storage and the electric vehicle industry.

Unlike a lithium-ion battery, which contains the electrolyte in a cell, in a flow battery the electrolyte is stored in two tanks. The flow battery generates electricity when the liquid electrolyte flows through a cell and reacts with the electrodes inside the cell.

According to an article by Gigaom.com reporter Ucilia Wang, several approaches to flow batteries are being developed, with the primary differences typically involving the materials used to store energy. Among the materials currently being used are iron, vanadium, zinc, and bromine.1

Usually, each of the tanks contains a different material. For example, in the flow battery designed by a startup company called EnerVault, iron is in one tank and chromium in the other. However, in flow batteries that use vanadium, the same material is used in both tanks.

Because of their unique design, with external storage tanks, flow batteries can be easily scaled by making the tanks bigger. Among the other benefits of flow batteries are that they are rechargeable; they deliver energy longer and more consistently than other batteries; and the materials used in most designs are plentiful and cheap.

As the demand for a reliable technology to store energy is heating up, so is the competition. The ultimate goal is to hit the U.S. Department of Energy's target of $250 per kilowatt-hour.

For example, EnerVault recently demonstrated a battery that holds one megawatt-hour of electricity, which is enough to run 10,000 100-watt light bulbs for one hour. The company has already raised $30 million in funding from companies including 3M and the French energy company Total, as well as a $5 million Department of Energy (DOE) grant.

EnerVault's use of chromium and iron in the storage tanks had previously led to problems with chemical reactions, including the release of hydrogen, which caused the battery to degrade and lowered the amount of energy it could store. But the company recently announced it has solved the problem, and that the energy storage materials can last for more than 20 years.

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