By modifying the structures of molecules used in the positive and negative electrolyte solutions, and making them water soluble, the team at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) was able to produce a battery that loses only one percent of its capacity per 1000 cycles.
Flow batteries store energy in liquid solutions in external tanks — the bigger the tanks, the more energy they store — and are a promising storage solution for renewable, intermittent energy like wind and solar. However, current flow batteries often suffer degraded energy storage capacity after many charge-discharge cycles, requiring periodic maintenance of the electrolyte to restore the capacity. A low maintenance, long term energy storage system would change the economics of renewable energy.
“Because we were able to dissolve the electrolytes in neutral water, this is a long-lasting battery that you could put in your basement,” said Roy Gordon, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science. “If it spilled on the floor, it wouldn’t eat the concrete and since the medium is noncorrosive, you can use cheaper materials to build the components of the batteries, like the tanks and pumps.”
This reduction of cost is important. The Department of Energy (DOE) in the US has set a goal of building a battery that can store energy for less than $100 per kilowatt-hour, which would make stored wind and solar energy competitive to energy produced from traditional power plants.
“If you can get anywhere near this cost target then you change the world,” said Michael Aziz, the Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies. “It becomes cost effective to put batteries in so many places. This research puts us one step closer to reaching that target.”
“This work on aqueous soluble organic electrolytes is of high significance in pointing the way towards future batteries with vastly improved cycle life and considerably lower cost,” said Imre Gyuk, Director of Energy Storage Research at the Office of Electricity of the DOE. “I expect that efficient, long duration flow batteries will become standard as part of the infrastructure of the electric grid.”
The key to designing the battery was to first figure out why previous molecules were degrading so quickly in neutral solutions. By first identifying how the molecule viologen in the negative electrolyte was decomposing, researcher Eugene Beh was able to modify its molecular structure to make it more resilient. The team then turned to ferrocene, a molecule well known for its electrochemical properties, for the positive electrolyte.
“Ferrocene is great for storing charge but is completely insoluble in water,” said Beh. “It has been used in other batteries with organic solvents, which are flammable and expensive.” But the innovation was modifying ferrocene molecules in the same way as the viologen, turning an insoluble molecule into a highly soluble one that could also be cycled stably.
“Aqueous soluble ferrocenes represent a whole new class of molecules for flow batteries,” said Aziz.
The neutral pH should be especially helpful in lowering the cost of the ion-selective membrane that separates the two sides of the battery. Most flow batteries today use expensive polymers that can withstand the aggressive chemistry inside the battery. They can account for up to one third of the total cost of the device. With essentially salt water on both sides of the membrane, expensive polymers can be replaced by cheap hydrocarbons.
With assistance from Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD), the researchers are now working with several companies to scale up the technology for industrial applications and to optimize the interactions between the membrane and the electrolyte. Harvard OTD has filed a portfolio of pending patents on innovations in flow battery technology.
Vitamin inspires new solar flow batteries
‘Aqueous solar flow’ battery lasts longer
DOE energy innovation hub backs two key future battery technologies
Novel battery produces electricity and hydrogen