Batteries GE develops flow battery for EVs

Published on August 29th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


GE Flow Battery Aims For 240-Mile EV Range… And Beyond

August 29th, 2013 by  

We were just fooling around with the notion that new fuel cell technology could shake up the electric vehicle market, when here comes GE with another alternative: a flow battery that combines with a fuel cell to push EV range up to the Department of Energy’s goal of 240 miles, and even farther. The official rated range of Tesla Motors’ highly regarded but highly costly Model S is already 265 miles on a lithium-ion battery pack, so the big factor here is going to be affordability. With that in mind let’s take a look at that GE flow battery and see what’s doing.

The New GE Flow Battery

A typical flow battery consists of two separate liquids flowing on either side of a membrane. Like fuel cells, EV flow batteries would generate electricity on board the vehicle through an electrochemical reaction, rather than drawing electricity from the grid and storing it.

GE develops flow battery for EVs

Water-based flow battery system courtesy of GE Global Research.

The challenge has been to lower the cost of the main components, including the liquids and the membrane. Another big challenge is to achieve an energy density level that enables the whole battery system to shrink down to a size and weight workable for passenger vehicles.

GE’s flow battery technology is water-based, but before you get all excited about filling up your gas tank with water bear with us for a second. By water-based they simply mean a water-based solution of inorganic chemicals.

Here’s how it would work, keeping in mind that the idea is to combine the “best properties” of both flow batteries and fuel cells:

A hydrogenated organic liquid carrier is fed to the anode of a PEM fuel cell where it is electrochemically dehydrogenated, generating electricity, while air oxygen is reduced at the cathode to water. To recharge the flow battery, the reactions are reversed and the organic liquid is electrochemically re-hydrogenated, or rapidly replaced with the hydrogenated form at a refueling station.

The result, in theory, is an energy density of up to 1350 Wh/kg, which according to GE would be a record-setter for secondary batteries.

More to the point, the GE research team anticipates that their flow battery system could be produced for 75 percent less than the cost of a typical lithium-ion battery pack, which right now is the gold standard for EV batteries.

However, if you really want to go ahead and buy an EV now, don’t wait on GE. Between lower operating costs, subsidies, and a downward trend in battery prices, the cost of a good EV has already dropped to the affordability range for many car buyers. You can always trade it in a few years down the line, whenever GE’s new flow battery hits the market.

According to GE Global Research, which is heading up the project, the next step is to translate the labwork into a working prototype and demonstrate the feasibility of the technology, so commercialization is still a long way off.

We Built This New GE Flow Battery!

GE is not shy about crediting its research partners, so why should we be? GE Global Research has been recognized by the Obama Administration as an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the Department of Energy, charged with developing game-changing energy storage technologies. According to GE, it is the only corporate research center chosen for such a role.

The project itself comes under the Energy Department’s ARPA-E RANGE initiative, which has the goal of making EV ownership just as affordable and convenient as owning a gasoline vehicle.

Other partners include Yale University– Crabtree Group, Yale University– Batista Group, Stanford University, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

 All Roads Lead To Cheaper Flow Batteries

Aside from GE’s approach, other research teams are addressing the membrane cost issue by doing away with it altogether. At MIT, for example, they’re working on a bromine based flow battery with no membrane.

Electric vehicles represent just one market for flow batteries, by the way. Another major market is grid-scale energy storage, and we taxpayers have been hard at work on that one, too.

One good example is Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which has partnered with the company UniEnergy to develop a grid-scale flow battery based on two different vanadium ions (vanadium is a soft metal).

Another example comes from Sandia National Laboratories, which is using a solution of liquid salts called MetiLs in its low cost flow battery project.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Engie

    I might be wrong here, but PEMs are still plagued by costly catalyst aren’t they? From the sounds of the hydrogenated fuel description this would still rely on the combining of hydrogen and oxygen in the pem. So while it may have tantalizing wh/kg, no cost was mentioned, and I wonder if they’re using a platinum catalyst or some new doped catalyst.

    • Tekito

      Good points. I followed the link and the details are very vague; I’m still unsure as to what GE is doing exactly . To just announce they are developing a 75% cheaper, 240 mile battery w/o any real explanation of how is plain silly.

    • Platinum catalysts are being replaced by similar-performance but cheap materials. There have been several lab discoveries in this area recently.

      Also, I am not sure that GE has a “stock”-type PEM. Possibly, their water-based solvents allow for a much cheaper fuel-cell to start with.

      There were some words about cost. They estimate, this could be 75% cheaper than current lithium-based batteries.

  • Nick

    We built this garbage remarks get old tina. For that matter ‘we’ made the oil industry with subsidies. ‘we’ still don’t have solar panels on the white house 5 years later…and we will see if this comes to fruition.

    • Nick


  • Marion Meads

    I don’t see reason why commercialization cannot be fast tracked.

    • Matt

      Its those devils in the details that take time to work out.

    • J_JamesM

      Haste makes waste. You can’t rush things.

      • Bob_Wallace

        You know that will all the effort being put into finding a good EV battery they will move this along as fast as possible. They might have only a limited window of opportunity to make some money.

        At the same time with all the people looking to tear down whatever ‘green’ that comes to the market, especially EV batteries, they will be extra careful before releasing. One whisp of smoke in an extreme misuse situation would ricochet around the web for years.

        My guess is that the timing will be just about right.

        • J_JamesM

          I agree. But some people don’t seem to realize there is a very important process involved when taking an idea off of the pages and into the laboratory, and from the laboratory to the market.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Right. But many of us are very anxious for some good storage systems to hit the market.

            Getting rid of fossil fuels is so close we can taste it. An affordable 180-200 mile battery and a grid storage battery cheaper than pump-up hydro and we’re there.

            It’s kind of like when the first affordable personal computers became available. Typewriters and ledger books went away. And the new technology kept getting better and cheaper. First we heard that Woz had made an Apple….

          • Joe Dick

            And you, James, don’t have a clue as to how any of that happens, because, you, as you yourself admitted, do not have any degree or relevant training in engineering or science. How dare you act like you know anything!

      • Joe Dick

        Too bad you don’t have any experience in the matter that matters.

  • Jouni Valkonen

    range is not the only issue. Floor mounted battery pack made Tesla the best and the safest car ever. Lithium battery is very useful as a support structure and it enables to make better car due to ideal weight distribution.

    It is still possible to push down the price of lithium batteries to the $100 per kWh, which is 75% less than todays EV batteries.

    • Steven Sullivan

      nope wont happen with lithium too labor intensive to manufacture with battery management system. by the way that water will be as heavy but wont give structural support.

      • Jouni Valkonen

        perhaps robotics could get more advanced. Right now industrial robotics is advancing as fast pace as battery tech.

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