Before the massive electrical grids and power lines that our current infrastructure relies so heavily upon, batteries were the way we created electricity. As batteries advanced, so did our technological capabilities. From lead-acid to lithium ion, battery technologies dominate the majority our our everyday gadgets, appliances, and amenities.
If you don’t believe me, just take a quick walk around your house and find out what uses batteries. Many people take for granted what this piece of technology offers us, even the beloved Bill Nye the Science Guy made a parody of a world without batteries. The most common use for lead-acid batteries is in your cars; however, lithium ion batteries have become to mainstay for the items we so preciously need today.
Why are lithium batteries all the rage? Lithium happens to be the metal with the greatest electrochemical potential and energy-to-weight ratio. This means it can hold a bigger charge without having to become a massive sized hunk of junk. They are also rechargeable!
Lithium and lithium-ion battery technologies have become the staple battery for many of the cool gadgets that we use today, including cell phones, laptops, and even Tesla Roadsters. Another bonus is that Tesla battery packs can reach 90% recyclability.
Despite the incredible technology opportunities created from the advancement in battery capabilities, researchers are looking for new ways to allow batteries to not only provide us with energy, but store the energy we create from renewable energy.
One of the biggest drawbacks of distributed and large-scale renewable energy advancement is the fact that many of the resources like solar and wind are intermittent. The wind is not always blowing and the sun is only out during the day. However, most peak demand times during the day occur in the late afternoon and into the evening, often when the sun is not shining or a solar system cannot capture as much energy. This is why battery technology is so crucial.
By developing batteries with the capability of storing massive amounts of energy from solar and wind during the day, that energy can then be used later in the day when electricity demand rises. This also shifts our electricity generation away from the use of fossil fuels. Although many people believe we are far from creating the types of batteries needed, many companies are creating what they believe is the battery to change the future.
The first battery technology that has the potential to change the game is an “organic flow” battery created by researchers at Harvard University. Current battery technologies use metals as the electrolytes needed to make the battery work; all batteries must use a solution of electrolyte for them to operate. The thing about the Harvard team is that instead of using metals, they are using carbon based materials to create a more organic flow within the battery. For those of you that phased out during the last sentence, what you need to know is that this battery creates large scale volume storage that we don’t see in current batteries.
A second battery technology that could not only maximize the potential of renewables but potentially replace natural gas power plants is being produced by the startup group Aquion. The new battery, developed in part by the help of Carnegie Mellon University professors, uses materials so safe that you could EAT it… Not only that, these materials also enable the battery to cost similar to a lead-acid battery but with twice the storage potential. The company envisions this new battery to be a way to power remote renewable energy systems and micro-grids.
The company has also seen the battery’s potential in removing some natural gas plants from our energy mix. A natural gas peaker plant is one used to help manage the supply and demand shifts in our electrical grid; however, although natural gas burns clean, many scientists and activists worry about how we obtain natural gas in the U.S. By using these batteries, rather than the peaker plant, renewable energy can be stored and used to balance electricity supply and demand.
The final battery technology, and my personal favorite, that many people might not view as a battery, is the electric vehicle (EV). What, a car as a battery? Yes, plug-in EVs require batteries to operate and often use advanced lithium-ion technology to make that happen. When you plug-in your EV at night to charge, the battery not only can draw energy from the grid to charge itself, but it can also supply energy to the grid if needed.
If our economy were based on EVs and people could charge their cars during the workday from renewable energy, people would then come home to cars (more importantly, the car’s battery) that can supply the necessary energy for peak demand times.
Since the first use of the battery in the late 1700s, batteries have advanced exponentially and made the world what it is today. But if we are to make the world of tomorrow, powered by 100% clean energy, we must continue to advance battery technology and push the limits of materials science.
John Steller is a recent Master’s graduate in Climate Science and Solutions from Northern Arizona University. During his time at NAU, John worked on climate change communication and greenhouse gas inventory projects for the University and Flagstaff community. Prior to his graduate education, he received his undergraduate degree in Environmental Geology from Murray State University. John enjoys trivia nights, baseball, and his never ending pursuit for the world’s best orange cream milkshake.
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