Flow Batteries at Stanford and in Lichtenstein

Dean Sigler Electric Powerplants, Sustainable Aviation 0 Comments

Dr. Yi Cui is a Stanford University associate professor of materials science and engineering and a member of the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences, a joint institute with SLAC, the National Acceleration Laboratory.  He has spoken at three Electric Aircraft Symposiums, and has worked for at least the last decade on various technologies and tactics to bring battery science to a high level.

His latest effort involves “a low-cost, long-life battery that could enable solar and wind energy to become major suppliers to the electrical grid,” according to a press release from SLAC.  Dr. Cui says, “We believe our new battery may be the best yet designed to regulate the natural fluctuations of these alternative energies.”

Of concern to drivers of electric vehicles and future pilots, the electrical grid may have trouble keeping up with recharging needs of large numbers of cars, buses and even Boeing SUGAR (Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research) Liners.  Wind and solar have the well-known deficits of shutting down after dark or during lulls in the breeze, respectively.  It would be nice to have energy storage capabilities to ride out these lax spells, much as the Solar Impulse flies through the night on its batteries.

Such storage would have to be inexpensive to compete with fossil-fuel powered generators and scalable to megawatt levels.

Flow batteries offer some of those characteristics, pumping two different liquids through a chamber where they interact – the most common outcome being a “redox”, or reduction-oxidation reaction where the two electrolytes with different valences press against two sides of a membrane separating them, react, and generate current.

The first such battery, created in 1884 by Captain Charles Renard, powered the Airship La France, and flew several trips around the Paris area.  The zinc/chlorine battery was “fueled” by its own on-board chlorine generator.

La France was fully controllable electric airship with a 436 kilogram (960 pound) flow battery

La France was a fully controllable electric airship with a 436 kilogram (960 pound) flow battery

Modern versions of the flow battery, according to SLAC “pump two different liquids through an interaction chamber where dissolved molecules undergo chemical reactions that store or give up energy. The chamber contains a membrane that only allows ions not involved in reactions to pass between the liquids while keeping the active ions physically separated. This battery design has two major drawbacks: the high cost of liquids containing rare materials such as vanadium – especially in the huge quantities needed for grid storage – and the membrane, which is also very expensive and requires frequent maintenance.”

Stanford flow battery compared to "conventional" flow battery

These diagrams compare Stanford/SLAC’s new lithium-polysulfide flow battery design with conventional “redox” flow batteries. The new flow battery uses only one tank and pump and uses a simple coating instead of an expensive membrane to separate the anode and cathode. (Illustration: Greg Stewart/SLAC)

Instead of pricey vanadium-laden liquids, the Stanford battery uses inexpensive lithium and sulfur, and does away with the costly high-maintenance membrane.  “In initial lab tests, the new battery also retained excellent energy-storage performance through more than 2,000 charges and discharges, equivalent to more than 5.5 years of daily cycles,” Cui said.  Flow cells can also have higher energy and power densities than conventional batteries.

Dr. Cui and his team published their findings in the May issue of Energy & Environmental Science.

Now, if only someone could make this type of flow battery mobile – at least small enough to power a car – or even an airplane.

Conceptual view of QUANT's sophisticated drive system

Conceptual view of QUANT’s sophisticated drive system

Perhaps that hope has come true.  nanoFLOWCELL, a Lichtenstein based company, displayed their QUANT e-Sportslimousine at this week’s Geneva Motor Show.

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