Published on July 8th, 2014 | by Jake Richardson


‘Natural’ Battery Created At USC Lab

July 8th, 2014 by  

Scientists at the University of Southern California created a battery using quinones, organic compounds that can be found in nature. Plants, fungi, bacteria and some animals contain them. “These are the types of molecules that nature uses for energy transfer,” explained USC professor Sri Narayan. The researchers derived their quinones from naturally-occurring hydrocarbons. The point of using them is their much lower cost. Currently, it is more common for flow batteries to use metals, such as Vanadium, but the cost is higher for metals.

Image Credit: Nick B. Wiki Commons

Redox flow design

The new battery is based on a familiar design: the redox flow battery. This type of battery can use water as an electrolyte that also contains some dissolved electroactive chemicals. Narayan and Surya Prakash at USC  wanted to use an organic compound to dissolve in water for their electrolyte. A large redox flow battery has been operating successfully at a California almond farm to store energy generated by a solar array. The Enervault battery on the almond farm near Turlock, CA uses iron-chromium in the electrolyte.

Quinones: the Energy Carriers for a Natural Battery

Quinones are in plants such as black walnut, persimmons, aloe, buckwheat, teak and many others. In plants, quinones carry electrons and occur as pigments. Animals that contain them obtain them through ingestion.

An example of an insect using quinones , or a type of them, is the bombardier beetle’s defensive spray, which is emitted at a temperature of about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and can be irritating to the target. They aren’t only found in nature though. Sources can also be human-made such as benzene and naphthalene.

In fact, the USC scientists said they might be able to make them from CO2, which would be quite a twist. Material used in flow batteries to store energy made from solar arrays and wind turbines could be made from a fossil fuel byproduct. They aren’t the only ones to conduct research into the potential use of quinones for flow batteries. In January 2014, it was reported that scientists at Harvard were also experimenting with them.


ARPA-E, the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute and the University of Southern California funded the USC research.

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  • It sounds interesting.

  • Matt

    I woud remind everyone that we likely will not end up single storage approach. Or even a single flow battery. Yes the very fast charge/discharge is one market. But dream fr a moment. If the storage per Kwh is 1/3-1/10 of wind (or whatever is “current” lowest cost), then even charge/discharge that ramps over the minute range will find a place in the market.

  • Adam Devereaux

    For those of you wondering about the key stats: 5,000 cycles (estimated 15 year life span), 200-490 Ah/kg and apparently $10-20 kWh- that may be just for raw materials but presumably tanks and other hardware isn’t a huge cost.

    Cool stuff- let’s see what company gets created to bring to market.

    • Winston

      Big fan of flow batteries here, and those seem like great numbers compared to vanadium. But from the article you linked :”The ORBAT cell uses a membrane-electrode assembly configuration similar to that used in polymer electrolyte fuel cells”

      That’s the expensive bit, traditionally. They do say their process doesn’t require the catalysts that H2 PEM fuel cells need, but their membranes were based on Nafion 117. I can buy an 8×10 inch piece of Nafion 117 for $605 here:

      That’s a smidge over 500cm^2. The cell has a current density of 100mA/cm^2 and produces about 1.0V so that’s about 50W. So for 5kW to power my house? 100*$605 is $60,500. I haven’t even tried to make the membrane into electrodes yet, or tried to squeeze those into a cell with its flow plates, end plates, pumps and control systems.

      • bink

        Winston, the vanadium flow battery reaches across all application ranges (power and energy) which makes it cost effective versus all battery chemistry on the market.

        The unique attribute that the vanadium flow battery has that no other battery does is 100% availability. It can coincidentally (simultaneously) provide frequency regulation and demand response at the same time.

        This is called stacked value. To forego that feature for another technology does not make business sense. All you would have to do is add more capacity (tanks) of electrolyte which is the cheaper part of the battery equation (300kWh)

        • Winston

          This organic tech is no different. Not sure what your point is. We’re just replacing vanadium ions in the tanks with cheaper organic molecules in an acidic medium. And getting a better voltage.

          And no flow battery of any kind has 100% availability. Pumps break. Just ask the people on King Island how their flow battery is going.

          • bink


            Read the scientific article, this organic chemistry is not the panacea that is implied. Cell density is much lower than new vanadium chemistry batteries, cycle life is much lower and would not qualify to defer utility asset.

            It also seems they are using information from conventional vanadium redox chemistry and not the new advanced which allows for a wider temperature operating range and no fouling.

            I thought you had some knowledge about how systems work.

            The availability refers to accessibility of the battery to perform multiple applications while operating or in service (stacked value) not capacity factor (97%) which you refer to wherein maintenance and downtime have an impact. today’s industrial pumps have a track record of reliability and scheduled replacement so do not bring 1980’s, 90’s technology into this conversation.

            like I said the only technology to able to perform stacked value is the advanced redox batter

            oh and by the way, the response time on this battery would not qualify for quick response payment

      • Adam Devereaux

        That nafion price seems high- I’ve see prices online less then $1k per .5 sq/meter. Still you are right that’s a big expense. I’m sure there are material optimizations and bulk savings that will result in significantly lower costs for grid scale batteries. I don’t think you’ll see home sized anytime soon. That would be fantastic though to see 5,000 cycles at <$50 a kWh.

        • Winston

          Yeah, could work as little knobs stuck to the bottom of wind turbines, perhaps even inside the tower. The economics of having dispatchable wind generation would be interesting, particularly in SA. Having a decent forward view of what wind was doing would let the gas generators make better decisions and reduce the need for more augmentation of the interconnectors.

          Some interesting $ values (based on decent kW sized buses) here:

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