Top ARPA-E Funding Goes to Renewable Storage in Liquid "Battery"

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DOE’s new renewable energy Venture Capital unit ARPA-E has just funded an entirely new kind of liquid battery innovation from MIT professor Donald Sadoway, that works like an aluminum plant running in reverse; producing power instead of consuming it.


Under the ARPA-E program at the DOE, the Obama administration has provided record-setting funding for advanced breakthroughs in renewable energy technology – that could propel America to the front of the post-oil age economy.

Just 37 technologies were selected for their potential transformational impact in the world, out of 3,600 applicants. Of the 37 winners; Sadaway’s has received the most funding; with $7 million.

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MIT professor Donald Sadoway has come up with a technology never attempted before that could lead to very large-scale commercialization. Renewable energy storage will be worth trillions to whichever nation that can make economical, so Sadoway’s research holds promise: it was limited to domestically available liquid metals that are both plentiful and cheap.

Sadoway’s idea came from the technology used by aluminum smelting plants able to sustain extremely high levels of electrical current for years at a time.

The basic principle is to place three layers of liquid inside a container: Two different metal alloys, and a layer of a salt. The energy is stored in the liquid metals that want to react with one another but can do so only by transferring ions — electrically charged atoms of one of the metals — across the electrolyte, which results in the flow of electric current out of the battery.

When the battery is being charged, some ions migrate through the insulating salt layer to collect at one of the terminals. Then, when the power is being drained from the battery, those ions migrate back through the salt and collect at the opposite terminal.

The whole device is kept at a high temperature, around 700 degrees Celsius, so that the layers remain molten. In the small devices being tested in the lab, maintaining this temperature requires an outside heater, but Sadoway says that in the full-scale version, the electrical current being pumped into, or out of, the battery will be sufficient to maintain that temperature without any outside heat source.

One day, we’ll remember these ARPA-E 37 innovations for fundamentally changing the way we use and produce energy.  By getting the funding out under The Recovery Act; the administration is able to bypass the usual foot-dragging in the Senate that has prevented action on climate and clean energy legislation that is needed to safeguard our future as a first world country.

ARPA-E’s venture capital funding is intended to attract real VC funding so renewable energy technology breakthroughs in university labs can make it through the “Valley of Death” to commercialization.

Let’s hope our own VCs see the promise soon enough. Certainly Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Andrew Chung in Silicon Valley sees grid-scale storage as an area set to explode in the next decade or so; but our VCs better move quickly.

Within a week of the $7 million announcement from our US DOE a French oil company counter-offered Sadoway $4 million. Storage is to renewable energy as the railroad was to the coal industry in the 19th century.

Image: Steven Chu at the NREL

Source: MIT News

Related stories:

Why Wind Storage Will be Worth Trillions

ARPA-E Hires a VC

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