Researchers Develop Smaller, Cheaper Flow Batteries for Clean Energy – Zoo House News

Researchers Develop Smaller, Cheaper Flow Batteries for Clean Energy – Zoo House News

  • Science
  • January 15, 2023
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Clean energy is the leading solution to climate change. But solar and wind power do not produce enough energy for a reliable power grid. Alternatively, lithium-ion batteries can store energy but are a limited resource.

“The advantage of a coal-fired power plant is that it’s very stable,” said Nian Liu, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “When the power source fluctuates, as is the case with clean energy, it becomes more difficult to manage. So how can we use an energy storage device or system to smooth out these fluctuations?”

Flow batteries offer a solution. In this accumulator, electrolytes flow from storage tanks through electrochemical cells. Existing flow battery technologies cost more than $200/kWh and are too expensive for practical use, but Liu’s lab at the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE) developed a more compact flow battery cell configuration that accommodates the size of the Cell reduced 75%, correspondingly reducing the size and cost of the overall flow battery. The work could revolutionize the way everything from large commercial buildings to residential homes is powered.

The Georgia Tech research team published their findings in the paper “A Sub-Millimeter Bundled Microtubular Flow Battery Cell With Ultra-high Volumetric Power Density” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

find the river

Flow batteries get their name from the flow cell in which the exchange of electrons takes place. Their traditional design, the planar cell, requires bulky flow dividers and seals, increasing size and cost but reducing overall performance. The cell itself is also expensive. To reduce space and cost, researchers focused on improving the volumetric power density (cell W/L) of the flow cell.

They turned to a configuration commonly used in chemical separation—a submillimeter bundled microtubular membrane (SBMT)—consisting of a fibrous filter membrane known as a hollow fiber. This innovation has a space-saving design that can alleviate the pressure across the membranes that ions pass through without the need for additional support infrastructure.

“We were interested in the impact of battery separator geometry on flow battery performance,” said Ryan Lively, Professor at ChBE. “We recognized the benefits that hollow fibers bring to separation membranes and set out to realize the same benefits in the battery space.”

Using this concept, researchers developed a SMBT that reduces the membrane-to-membrane distance by almost 100-fold. The microtubular membrane in the design doubles as an electrolyte distributor without the need for large support materials. The bundled microtubes create a shorter distance between electrodes and membranes, increasing volumetric power density. This bundling design is the key discovery to maximize the potential of flow batteries.

battery power supply

To validate their new battery configuration, the researchers used four different chemistries: vanadium, zinc bromide, quinone bromide, and zinc iodide. Although all chemistries work, two showed the most promise. Vanadium was the most sophisticated chemistry, but also less accessible, and the reduced form of it is unstable in air. They found zinc iodide to be the most energy-dense option, making it the most effective for residential units. Zinc iodide offered many advantages even compared to lithium: it has fewer supply chain problems and it can also be converted into zinc oxide and dissolved in acid, making it much easier to recycle.

This electrochemical solution for this unique form of flow battery proved to perform better than traditional planar cells.

“The superior performance of the SMBT was also demonstrated by finite element analysis,” said Xing Xie, assistant professor at the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “This simulation method will also be used in our future study on cell performance optimization and upscaling.”

With zinc iodide chemistry, the battery could run in excess of 220 hours or up to >2,500 cycles in light load conditions. Using recycled electrolyte could potentially reduce costs from $800 to less than $200 per kilowatt hour.

Build the future of energy

Researchers are already working toward commercialization, focusing on developing batteries with different chemistries, such as vanadium, and scaling their size. Scaling up requires the development of an automated process to manufacture a hollow fiber module, which is now done manually, fiber by fiber. They eventually hope to use the battery in Georgia Tech’s 1.4-megawatt microgrid at Tech Square, a project that will test the integration of microgrids with the power grid and provide a living laboratory for professors and students.

The SBMT cells could also be applied to various energy storage systems such as electrolysis and fuel cells. The technology could even be strengthened with advanced materials and different chemistry in different applications.

“This innovation is very application-oriented,” said Liu. “We need to achieve carbon neutrality by increasing the share of renewable energy in our energy production, and currently in the US it’s less than 15%. Our research could change that.”

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