New generation of ‘flow batteries’ could eventually sustain a grid powered by the sun and wind

Date: Nov 1, 2018

Batteries already power electronics, tools, and cars; soon, they could help sustain the entire electric grid. With the rise of wind and solar power, energy companies are looking for ways to keep electrons flowing when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind ebbs. Giant devices called flow batteries, using tanks of electrolytes capable of storing enough electricity to power thousands of homes for many hours, could be the answer. But most flow batteries rely on vanadium, a somewhat rare and expensive metal, and alternatives are short-lived and toxic.

Last week, researchers reported overcoming many of these drawbacks with a potentially cheap, long-lived, and safe flow battery. The work is part of a wave of advances generating optimism that a new generation of flow batteries will soon serve as a backstop for the deployment of wind and solar power on a grand scale. “There is lots of progress in this field right now,” says Ulrich Schubert, a chemist at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany.

Lithium-ion batteries—the sort in laptops and Teslas—have a head start in grid-scale applications. Lithium batteries already bank backup power for hospitals, office parks, and even towns. But they don’t scale up well to the larger sizes needed to provide backup power for cities, says Michael Perry, associate director for electrochemical energy systems at United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford, Connecticut.

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