I read an interesting article in The Economist this week called Batteries Included? The Future of Energy that highlighted the new developments in battery technology that aims to usher in a new era of free and renewable energy. Storage has been the traditional problem with renewable energy deployment as the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. Our current battery technology is simply too costly and not efficient enough to store energy produced from renewable sources for use at a later time. The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research just received a $120 million grant from the Department of Energy in order to make batteries 5x more powerful at 1/5th the price. The key to achieving this goal is to leverage the “Materials Program” of MIT to find new materials that are more efficient than the now infamous lithium-ion battery found in hybrids and grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliners after recent incidents of overheating. Examples of these new opportunities include using magnesium atoms, which contain 2 valence electrons, or aluminum with 3, instead of lithium atoms that contain only 1. The extra electron increases the amount of energy that can be stored.
In terms of grid-scale energy storage, JCESR is researching flow batteries that hold a charge in the electrolyte itself rather than inside a cell as conventional batteries do. This allows flow batteries to store massive amounts of energy, such as that from wind farms and commercial solar farms. However, these too face limitations.
Improvements in energy storage technology will allow renewable energy systems to play a larger role in society. Advanced research using new technologies will eventually make renewable products cost competitive with conventional products. Instances include new plug-in electric cars that can drive for days without being recharged and even grid-sized batteries that harness energy from wind and solar farms and produce the energy when and where it is needed. Hopefully these technologies will prove better than anticipated and we can improve our economy and our environment at the same time.