A new kind of battery designed by Harvard University scientists and engineers could unlock the potential of renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Flowbatt

The new flow battery design from a Harvard team uses organic (carbon-based) materials instead of a rare metal.

One of the problems with solar and wind power is that the flow of electricity can’t be constant – the sun sets or goes behind clouds, and the wind dies or picks up. This can cause problems if these systems are wired into the electric grid, which has trouble handling sudden massive surges and dips in demand (Hawaii and Germany are two areas where this problem has already begun to butt up against widespread solar panel adoption). Having a reliable, cheaper way of storing massive amounts of electricity would be a big step towards wider reliance on these alternative energy sources

In a paper published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, Harvard chemist Roy Gordon and colleagues described their design for a special kind of battery that might fit the bill. The team’s current model is just a laboratory experiment for now, but they think it could be scaled up to store large amounts of energy, providing the buffer that the grid needs to handle excess energy pouring in from solar panels and wind turbines. And the central ingredient of the battery is relatively cheap, which means it may move to market quicker.

The team has created a type of flow battery, which stores energy in external tanks filled with chemicals, rather than within the battery itself. Flow batteries have been around for a couple decades, but the active component of current models is the metal vanadium, which is costly – and probably not abundant enough to be the basis of a long-term technological solution.

20 January 2014 IBTimes

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