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February 3, 2021

New flow battery could boost renewable energy

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Organic materials similar to those found in rhubarb could hold the answer to the development of an affordable, large-scale flow battery capable of underpinning an increased use of renewable energy.

The breakthrough is based on a flow battery that relies on the electrochemistry of naturally abundant, inexpensive, small organic (carbon-based) molecules called quinones, Harvard University scientists reported.

These molecules are similar to the ones that store energy in plants and animals. In plants quinones help with the process of photosynthesis.

flow battery harvard
Above: Michael J. Aziz (pictured) and others at Harvard University have developed a metal-free flow battery. Photo: Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications

The molecule that the Harvard team used in its first quinone-based flow battery is almost identical to one found in rhubarb. It was discovered after testing thousands of different sources of the molecule.

Flow batteries store energy in chemical fluids contained in external tanks instead of within the battery container itself. Thus the amount of energy that can be stored is limited only by the size of the external tanks.

Generally speaking flow batteries are better suited to storing large quantities of renewable energy, but haven’t been affordable because they are normally based on expensive chemicals.

rhubarb
Above: Rhubarb may hold the key to cheaper flow batteries.

Adapting flow batteries to run on organic matter will make them much cheaper, which has important implications for the renewable energy sector.

The technology has applications at the commercial scale, say at a large wind or solar farms, but could also be produced in smaller units for home use, according to co-lead author of the research chemist Michael Marshak.

“Imagine a device the size of a home heating oil tank sitting in your basement. It would store a day’s worth of sunshine from the solar panels on the roof of your house, potentially providing enough to power your household from late afternoon, through the night, into the next morning, without burning any fossil fuels,” he said.

The battery’s designer Michael Aziz, from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said the next step in the project will be to further test and optimise the system that has been demonstrated on the bench top and bring it toward a commercial scale.

“I think the chemistry we have right now might be the best that’s out there for stationary storage and quite possibly cheap enough to make it in the marketplace,” he said. “But we have ideas that could lead to huge improvements.”

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