Batteries

Published on October 30th, 2014 | by Sponsored Content

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In 2064, This Is Your Life As An Energy Generator

October 30th, 2014 by  

This article is part of the ‘Think Further’ series, sponsored by Fred Alger Management, Inc. For more ‘Think Further’ content and videos, visit thinkfurtheralger.com.

We’ve been all over MIT researcher Donald Sadoway’s new “dirt cheap” liquid metal battery ever since it was a glimmer in his eye, so when Sadoway’s name came up in the context of a sponsored series for the investment firm Alger, that provided a good opportunity to dig a little deeper into his vision for our sparkly green future.

Alger has showcased Sadoway discussing the renewable energy landscape of tomorrow in a six-minute video, in which he divulged the inspiration behind his liquid metal battery. We were also intrigued by how the new battery technology could fit into the “every user could be a generator” theme that he articulates near the beginning of the video.

The Liquid Metal Battery Of The Future

In the video, Sadoway describes how the idea of a liquid metal battery was born out of the need to translate wind and solar energy into a reliable form.

That basically means pairing wind and solar with energy storage, including pumped hydro and thermal storage. Pumped hydro and thermal have limitations in terms of siting, scalability, and mobility.

Sadoway went in search of a more flexible, scalable form of energy storage with a low cost supply chain with the widest possible global reach.

That’s why Sadoway sent his research team literally digging in the dirt for battery materials, as described in the video.

What they ended up with is the “liquid metal battery,” consisting of three common, inexpensive substances: magnesium, a salt compound, and antimony. The three materials readily separate into three distinct layers in a liquid state, which Sadoway’s MIT team achieved through a process  inspired by the century-old technology for aluminum smelting.

The whole concept was bold enough to win a huge $7 million ARPA-E funding pot back in 2009. It’s been onwards and upwards since then, one recent development in May 2014 being a $35 million infusion of private financing for a grid-scale version of the technology.

Your Life As An Energy Generator

While Sadoway’s spinoff firm Ambri seems to be focusing on the grid-scale market, the potential for scaling the technology down to microgrids and personal use opens up endless possibilities.

So, what would your day look like if Ambri’s liquid metal battery became part and parcel of your future energy experience, say in 2064?

To some extent, that would depend on how you live. For example, if you own a single family home in a solar-friendly region, you get up in the morning and while brushing your teeth you check the status of the battery in your basement, which was charged the previous day from your rooftop and carport solar panels. If the weather outlook is sunny and your battery exceeds your projected needs for day, you would sell your extra solar energy to the local microgrid.

You could also contribute that extra energy to recharge a neighborhood-based battery for use in emergencies, or you could sell it at low cost (or what the heck, just donate it) to a charitable group or other non-profit organization that doesn’t have its own access to wind or solar.

The main point is, your capacity to economically generate and store renewable energy on your own property would provide you with a new opportunity to benefit yourself financially, but that’s already old news given the rapid growth of today’s solar market. What’s new, looking ahead to 2064, are new opportunities you would have to contribute to the well-being of your community.

You get bonus points if you’ve also taken into account the status of the battery in your electric vehicle, factoring in your estimated drive for the day along with potential opportunities to recharge it at work or elsewhere.

A similar scenario goes for commercial property owners, too, btw.

Generating And Storing Energy On The Go

That’s the ideal. Your reality could be quite different if you live in a multi-dwelling building sandwiched in a block of similar buildings, if other buildings or your neighbor’s trees shade your property, if you rent a home and the owner is one of the three people left on the planet who doesn’t believe in renewable energy, or if other circumstances prevent your access to on site solar.

Still, after you finish brushing your teeth there could be many other opportunities to generate and store energy as you move through your day.

For starters, the floors and stairs in your building could be embedded with kinetic energy generating devices that connect to a mini-battery in one of your closets, or a common battery in the basement. Juice from treadmills or other home exercise machines  would be icing on the cake, your plumbing might also be outfitted with hydrokinetic devices, and new waste heat recovery technology could also contribute heat energy from your stove and other home appliances to a battery.

As you get dressed, you might a strap a slim kinetic energy device onto your knee, which enables you to harvest energy with every step and store it in a lightweight micro-battery in your pocket. And yes, you get brownie points for using it when you’re out jogging.

If you commute to work by car, you could be driving over roadway-embedded kinetic energy harvesting devices while solar panels embedded in the body of your car harvest additional energy. If you commute by bus or train, the surface of your bus stop or train station could be similarly embedded.

Ditto for when you get to work: revolving doors, escalators, elevators, and floor surfaces are all candidates for kinetic energy harvesting devices that could be used to recharge batteries, if the battery technology develops to the point where the financials work out.

We still haven’t figured out how you could generate and store energy in your sleep but we’re thinking small scale biogas digesters could come into play.

If we missed anything, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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  • Calamity_Jean

    What’s the operating temperature for the Ambri batteries? I’m thinking they are too hot for domestic use.

    • Offgridman

      Had wondered about that myself but then considered that if a high temperature is necessary for proper operation then they are going to come well insulated so as to not lose that heat.
      He talks about having them in the basement, and I think that like the flow batteries for sufficient storage capacity you need to allow for a bigger package. One diagram showed an individual unit for grid storage coming on a shipping pallet and being 4-5 feet high, and then combining ten or twenty of these for the right capacity.
      The only limit for residential storage is probably going to mean having a place to put them. It won’t be as small a package as what they are doing now with the lithium home backup, but with centuries of life, and a much greater flexibility of usage than lithium, you could put it in place and build the home around it. If there is any heat bleed maybe this can be used during the winter instead of other sources for the home, and used to power evaporative cooling during the summer.
      I like the way this professor plans and dreams big and long-term. When it comes time to deliver home storage it would seem that all of these issues will have been considered and allowed for.

      • Calamity_Jean

        It will be a while before they are ready to install anywhere, and there are other new battery types that are also promising.

        • Offgridman

          For residential yes, but I thought that a test setup for grid balancing was being done later this year or first of next with the liquid metal batteries.
          Might be crossing up my stories though, there are beginning to be several options now as you say.

  • Paul_McClure

    Like the idea of energy storage. Still it will revolve around price, just as wind and solar had to wait until the price issues were solved before spreading as they have, storage will play by the same rules. Until then, lets shut down large scale coal plants with grid storage.

  • Marion Meads

    Wrong idea! The nearest supercharger would most likely be a part of the local grid and will have the same energy availability issues unless these superchargers are directly connected to the supergrid at all times.

    • Ronald Brakels

      The current grid exists. I doubt it will get pulled down. Although it might retreat from rural and remote areas as is planned in Australia. New grid independent housing developments that use mirogrids in Australia will rely firstly on overcapacity to deal with seasonal variation, and secondly on some form of fossil fuel or perhaps biomass backup. That said, new housing developments probably will be connected to the grid as the cost of connection is likely to drop once electricity distributors no longer have people over a barrel and they are forced to deal sensibly with competition.

  • Marion Meads

    Wrong idea about the microgrids there! When there is significant solar capacity, whenever the weather’s good and you have excess, so does everyone else in the microgrid! When the skies are cloudy for weeks at a time, everyone will have need for more power in the same microgrid! You are treating the microgrid as it were a supergrid.

    • mk1313

      Not quite, that’s only if everyone has solar/wind. Though that may become the case in time it won’t be the case to start with.

    • Offgridman

      In the video he talks of back up for wind and solar although the simple diagrams of the mini grids don’t show any turbines, with the newer advances in turbine technology perhaps each home will also have one, or one big community one on a high tower.
      Ms Casey also discusses multiple inputs for these microgrids, even though her pieces on kinetic energy devices have gotten a lot of negative comments, it is to early to totally write them off. There’s no way to foresee the improvements that might come to them, and with continuing efficiency and conservation in our devices, even the small input of kinetic could be helpful.
      The Australian utility that is making plans for breaking off areas into minigrids is also planning on multiple power sources for them, and has mentioned leaving in place a thin link to the main grid to allow return of surplus and when necessary a draw for shortages.
      And on my home system the combination of wind and solar have ended up being quite complimentary. If it is cloudy all day during the summer it means a front is coming through so the wind kicks up increasing the turbine output. The same has been true of wintertime, with the shorter days also bringing stronger and more regular winds from the north and west. With going over size on my battery storage a few years ago the generator has become pretty much redundant the past couple of winters other than running a couple of times for battery balancing (peak charge). With the price of panels down so low now adding some for East and West exposure next year to stretch the charge time and add more cumulative wattage will make even that couple of times on the generator unnecessary.
      But the minigrids using the liquid metal or flow batteries won’t even have to worry about that as they can go up and down and be left at different states of charge with no harm.
      Possibly the people planning and designing these minigrids are considering and using a lot of different factors that will make them work that you aren’t considering. But with so many of us that are offgrid showing that it is feasible, and the engineering experts in these matters saying that the microgrid model is going to result in more reliable energy supply, can you explain some reason other than cloudy days that can be compensated for, as to why they won’t work.

  • Jan Veselý

    Your EV can have a “deep backup” ability. When your battery is low and there is no chance of sunny weather you just take your EV to the nearest supecharger where you can suck up enough juice to run your house next 2-3 days.

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