The ink has barely dried on Cummins’ new $24 million vanadium redox flow battery investment and it is already jumping to the head of the energy storage line. The company’s $24 million stake in the startup VoltStorage also comes with new iron redox flow technology, too.
What’s Wrong With Lithium-Ion Energy Storage?
Nothing is wrong with lithium-ion energy storage. The problem is that the global demand for energy storage has nowhere to go but up. While lithium is relatively abundant, lithium extraction is a messy affair. The environmental impacts are adding up. Local opposition to new mines and other facilities could stall additional development.
Here in the US, the Energy Department is supporting R&D that would pair lithium extraction with geothermal wells. The idea is to reduce the environmental impact to a minimum by packaging two operations in one. One such geothermal-lithium facility got off the ground at California’s Salton Sea last year and is expected to reach full operation by 2024.
The Vanadium Redox Flow Battery Solution
While all that is going on, energy storage stakeholders have been casting an eye on vanadium redox flow battery technology. Aside from accessing a recyclable supply chain that can avoid conflict issues, flow battery fans note a long list of advantages over lithium-ion technology including lower cost, longer duration, and ease of scalability.
The “flow” in a redox flow battery refers to the electricity produced when two specialized liquids flow adjacent to each other, typically separated by a thin membrane. The liquids are stored in tanks, and scaling up the battery is simply a matter of building larger tanks.
That sounds simple enough. However, there being no such thing as a free lunch, market-ready flow batteries have been a long time coming.
NASA first developed the technology in the 1970s, and the Energy Department was still trying to find a way to commercialize it during the Obama administration. There are any number of redox flow battery formulations, but nothing seemed to click until 2012 when the Energy Department came down firmly on the side of vanadium.
Vanadium (not Vibranium!) is a hard, silvery gray transition metal in the same Periodic Table group as gold, silver, and iron among others. Vanadium doesn’t get quite as much attention as those other elements but it happens to be the the fifth-most abundant transition metal in the Earth’s crust, which is good from a supply chain perspective.
As for why the Energy Department hearts vanadium, that’s easy. Other flow battery formulations require two different liquids, which can lead to cross-contamination and other complications. Vanadium redox flow batteries can get by just on vanadium. Here, let’s have the Energy Department explain:
“Unlike other RFBs, vanadium redox flow batteries (VRBs) use only one element (vanadium) in both tanks, exploiting vanadium’s ability to exist in several states. By using one element in both tanks,VRBs can overcome cross-contamination degradation, a significant issue with other RFB chemistries that use more than one element.”
Cummins Hitches Ride On Long Duration Train
That brings us to Cummins, which is another word that doesn’t often pop up in general conversation when the topic turns to clean tech. Nevertheless, Cummins has been flexing its muscles in the the electric mobility field, and low cost, long duration, grid scale energy storage is part of the plan.
Cummins announced its new $24 million investment in VoltStorage last week, taking note of the firm’s “particularly ecological vanadium redox flow technology for commercial and agricultural enterprises.”
“In addition, the international research and development team is working on the low-cost iron salt battery, whose properties make it particularly suitable for ensuring base load capability for wind and solar farms,” Cummins added.
The dual-purpose Cummins investment will enable VoltStorage to scale up its redox flow battery technology for residential neighborhoods, in addition to uses in agriculture and commercial facilities, while also hammering away at the iron salt angle.
What Is This Iron Salt Battery Of Which You Speak?
Sodium as an energy storage medium is not an unusual thing, and neither is iron. VoltStorage is packaging it all together in something it calls the Long Duration Battery.
“The materials required for the production of the Long Duration Battery are not only environmentally friendly, but also cost-effective and available worldwide,” VoltStorage enthuses.
The key ingredient is iron chloride, which can be retrieved as a byproduct of steelmaking and other processes. The electrolyte is composed of water and iron, which as VoltStorage points out is non-flammable.
“Conceptualized as a long-term storage solution with cascadable storage capacities, the Long Duration Battery is suitable for stationary applications with an energy demand of 10-100 hours. The storage system has a modular design so that capacity and performance can be expanded as required,” they add, taking note of the 20-year/10,000 charging cycle lifespan of their iron salt energy storage technology.
VoltStorage also explains that its iron battery can withstand temperature extremes of up to 50 degrees centigrade.
Last year, the firm hooked up with Landshut University of Applied Sciences in a research project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, aimed at scaling up the range of applications.
Cummins In League With Biden Admin. On Clean Tech
Aside from its hands-on activities in the clean tech field, Cummins has also joined with hundreds of other US companies to support President Biden’s signature climate bill, the formerly titled “Build Back Better” proposal.
Under its new title of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the bill spent the weekend deep in the bowels of the US Senate sausage-making machine, finally emerging with all 50 Democratic Senators voting in favor and the tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Kamala Harris.
For those of you keeping score at home, that means the bill garnered exactly zero support from Republican Senators.
That’s a curious position from the party that purports to be the economically responsible one, although it is consistent with the interests of fossil energy stakeholders.
The green investor group Ceres included Cummins in a roundup of heavy hitters in the US economy that have publicly supported passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, along with Carrier, Equinor, General Motors, Johnson Controls, Kaiser Permanente, Salesforce, Siemens, United Airlines, Walmart, and Workday.
Ceres also enlisted 40 A-listers to join a public letter in support of the Inflation Reduction Act. Signing on were BP America, Ford Motor Company, IKEA Retail US, Levi Strauss & Co., Logitech, Lyft, Ørsted North America, PSEG, SAP, Shell USA, and Unilever United States, along with some not-so-familiar but influential firms such as SB Energy.
“This package promises to unleash American innovation and ingenuity — and to foster the creation of millions of jobs as a result,” they wrote.
Democrats are listening to US corporations on clean tech, but apparently the leading members of the Republican Party are not. If they could just pull their collective head out of the uterus for a second or two, maybe they might learn something.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: New energy storage technology courtesy of VoltStorage.
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