Wind and solar power are increasingly popular sources for renewable energy but they require energy-storage systems that are expensive and function only in certain locations.
Now researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed an “air-breathing” battery that could store electricity for long periods at a substantially lower cost; about $20 to $30 per kWh compared with $100 kWh for existing technologies. The battery would have minimal location restraints and zero emissions.
The rechargeable flow battery makes use of cheap, abundant sulfur dissolved in water. An aerated liquid salt solution in the cathode continuously takes in and releases oxygen that balances charge as ions shuttle between the electrodes. Oxygen flowing into the cathode causes the anode to discharge electrons to an external circuit. Oxygen flowing out sends electrons back to the anode, recharging the battery.
“This battery literally inhales and exhales air, but it doesn’t exhale carbon dioxide, like humans — it exhales oxygen,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT and co-author of a paper describing the battery. The research appears in the journal Joule.
A major issue with batteries over the past several decades, Chiang says, has been a focus on synthesizing materials that offer greater energy density but are very expensive.
“This meant maybe we weren’t focusing on the right thing, with an ever-increasing chemical cost in pursuit of high energy-density,” Chiang says. He brought the issue to other MIT researchers. “We said, ‘If we want energy storage at the terawatt scale, we have to use truly abundant materials.’”
Because this battery uses ultra-low-cost materials, its chemical cost is one of the lowest — if not the lowest — of any rechargeable battery to enable cost-effective long-duration discharge. Its energy density is slightly lower than today’s lithium-ion batteries.
“It’s a creative and interesting new concept that could potentially be an ultra-low-cost solution for grid storage,” says Venkat Viswanathan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who studies energy-storage systems.
The current prototype is the size of a coffee cup. But flow batteries are highly scalable, Chiang says, and cells can be combined into larger systems.
Chiang thinks the best use for the battery may be for storing electricity from unpredictable wind and solar power sources. He added, “It could also compete, in cost and energy density, with pumped hydroelectric storage systems, which provide most of the energy storage for renewables around the world but are very restricted by location.”
Co-authors with Chiang on the paper are: first author Zheng Li, who was a postdoc at MIT during the research and is now a professor at Virginia Tech; Fikile R. Brushett, the Raymond A. and Helen E. St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering; research scientist Liang Su; graduate students Menghsuan Pan and Kai Xiang; and undergraduate students Andres Badel, Joseph M. Valle, and Stephanie L. Eiler.
The research was supported by the Department of Energy.
Illustration; MIT researchers have developed an “air-breathing” battery that could store electricity for very long durations for about a third the price of current technologies, with minimal location restraints and zero emissions.