When the sun shines, illuminating and inciting photosynthesis for plant life, we also catch it with our solar panels. We catch these rays to use them for our electricity needs, and we catch them to hold for times when the sun is hidden away. When the breeze blows, when wind stirs and incites, green power is also plentiful. However, at other moments when consumers need energy, the wind is not always blowing nor are the sun’s rays raining down on us. Renewable energy sources, solutions, rely on the timekeeping of Mother Nature. Sources have an intermittent flow, so storing the energy produced is necessary for the wider use of green energy.
$600,000 Innovation Grant from ARPA-E
To give renewables more with which to work, even greater potential for powering our daily needs, a team led by engineers and chemists at Harvard University will use a one-year, $600,000 innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) program to develop a new type of storage battery. The grant may be subject to renewal beyond a year, depending on performance. The award is part of a $130-million funding effort by ARPA-E through its “OPEN 2012” program, designed to support innovative energy technologies.
Green energy storage has to be viable — it cannot add much to the price of renewable electricity without making it unacceptably expensive.
Practical economics is a great concern. Hopeful that this work will be put into cost-effective form, the researchers are examining how to improve on their “flow battery.” The technology offers grid-scale electrical energy storage based on eco-friendly small, organic molecules. Practical implementation is everything for the program. Researchers are collaborating with Sustainable Innovations, LLC, a commercial electrochemical system developer.
“Storage of very large amounts of energy is required if we are to generate a major portion of our electricity from intermittent renewable sources such as wind turbines and photovoltaics,” says lead investigator Michael Aziz, Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “Currently no cost-effective solution exists to this large-scale storage problem. Flow batteries may make stationary storage viable in the marketplace, and that will enable wind and solar to displace a lot more fossil fuel.”
“We think our particular approach could have advantages over other flow batteries, such as higher power density, high efficiency, inexpensive chemicals, and a safer type of energy storage,” says Aziz. “The success of this program would render intermittent renewables like wind and photovoltaics dispatchable at will, and thereby permit them to supply a large fraction of our electricity needs.”
One of the key features of this new technology is that it includes a type of highly rechargable fuel cell — flow batteries are suitable for storing large amounts of electrical energy in the form of liquid chemicals, which are flowed past the electrochemical conversion hardware and stored externally in inexpensive tanks that can be arbitrarily large. This permits the designer to independently size the electrochemical conversion hardware (which sets the peak power capacity) and the chemical storage tanks (which set the energy capacity).
Aziz believes that using a particular class of small organic molecules may be the key. These molecules, which his team has already been working on, are found in plants and can be synthesized artificially for very low cost. Aziz is working on this most needed storage with: Roy Gordon, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science at Harvard, who will be responsible for the chemical screening and synthesis of molecules and of practical electrocatalytic and protective coatings; Alán Aspuru-Guzik, an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard who will use his pioneering high-throughput molecular screening methods to identify optimal molecules; and Trent M. Molter, President and CEO of Sustainable Innovations, LLC, who will provide expertise on implementing these innovations into commercial electrochemical systems.
“While not eliminating fossil fuels, flow battery storage potentially eliminates a barrier to doing so within the existing energy system and market,” says Aziz.
The Funding Behind This and Other Positive Changes: ARPA-E
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, known as ARPA-E, was launched in 2009 to seek out transformational, breakthrough technologies that are too risky for private-sector investment but have the potential to translate science into great leaps in energy technology, the potential to form the foundation for entirely new industries and have large commercial impacts. ARPA-E has attracted over 5,000 applications from research teams, which have resulted in over 180 groundbreaking projects worth nearly $500 million. More information on the program is available at www.arpa-e.energy.gov.
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