From sunlight to nuclear energy and coal power, the real game changing problem we need to solve is energy storage. The liquid metal battery from Ambri has the potential to finally set renewable power free of its intermittent shackles.
Dragging Magnets Through Coils of Wire
All major energy production technologies (wind, nuclear, hydrocarbon) essentially produce power by turning a shaft on which magnets spin, through coils of wire that generate power. These "thermal" energy technologies take heat from chemical reactions or energy from the wind or the splitting of the atom to heat a working fluid which spins a turbine, a turbine which spins magnets through coils of wire.
The only two alternatives to this magnet spinning in wire are fuel cells and solar photo voltaic technologies. Game changing energy storage technologies are needed to exploit the full potential of sustainable energy technologies.
Cleaner than Burning / Fuel Cells
Fuel cells, take potential chemical energy in a fuel and convert it to electricity through OIL (oxidization is loss), where electricity from the chemical reaction is pulled away for use.
Abundant Solar Potential
Solar photo-voltaic panels convert light directly into electricity, and because the sun produces light, solar is the only truly abundant energy source humans have access too. The fusion reactions in our massive sun produce more energy in 1 minute than humans have liberated by burning carbon fuels throughout all of human history.
Energy Storage Problem with Alternatives
The fundamental problem with fuel cells and solar panels is our technological inability to store grid scale quantities of energy in a fiscally effective way. The real key to replacing coal with solar power is energy storage technology that has not been commercially developed. Large scale energy storage technologies are still far too expensive to store terawatts of power. Even if we covered the worlds sunniest places with solar panels, we really need huge energy storage systems to make that power available 24 hours a day every day of the year.
Energy Efficiency Critical
Using power more efficiently is one of the real keys to moving on to renewable energy sources. Wind and solar power can provide the amount of electrical energy needed to power modern human civilization. We can thrive as a species with advanced technology using today's renewable energy sources if we invest in solar and wind and especially if we invest in game changing energy storage technologies.
Where is the miracle battery to store solar sun power and wind power ?
Battery technology has slowly but steadily improved at around %6 per year for the last 150 years. Computer technology on the other hand has improved more than 1000% in just the last 20 years. The lithium batteries used in the most sophisticated mobile energy technologies of today is fundamentally very similar to the lithium ion technology developed by Sony in the early 1990's.
Cost is the major problem with batteries of today. Consider the $18,000 battery in the Nissan Leaf. If that battery gives 18 years of useful life (Nissan estimates 8 years before it reaches 80% of its original capacity), then the battery would cost $1000 per year. Most people spend far more than $1000 for the fuel in a conventional vehicle, so in terms of today, the Nissan Leaf ends up costing about the same total out of pocket lifetime operating costs as a somewhat well equipped Honda Civic.
Lithium Iron Phosophate is the one real robust lithium chemistry. With 2000 to 3000 deep discharge cycles and 10+ years of calendar life, Iron phosphate is about 5 times more robust than Lithium NMC and about 10 times better than Lithium Cobalt Oxide. If you read "Green Car Congress's" web page, you will see that many Lithium battery innovations are under development for future commercialization: but all of them are essentially incremental improvements over the LiFePO4 batteries of today.
The Liquid Metal Battery Solution
The real game changing energy storage technology is from Ambri: a liquid metal density separated grid scale electro-chemical energy storage technology that has the capacity to store grid scale power and energy. Ambri technology was modeled after aluminum production cells, essentially large hot electro-chemical systems. In the case of Ambri, the megawatt sized batteries are insulated and self heating, keeping the metals liquid during charge and discharge cycles, with massive amounts of incoming and outgoing power. The liquid metals avoid the problems of plate/ layer destructive that plague room temperature lithium cell phone, laptop and EV batteries of today.
Heat is the enemy of current Lithium batteries, but with Ambri you get cheaper than lead acid storage with performance that makes LiFePO4 seem antiquated. Ambri technology operates hot, so resistance heating is actually a benefit with the liquid metal battery technology. Traditional Lithium batteries suffer damage from heat, rapidly degrading at elevated temperatures created during high rate charging and discharging. Sadly Ambri technology is still in the lab being refined today. In the future this technology looks like it will create a paradigm shift in energy storage. Low cost, long life, abundant materials, easy to construct, flexible design, chemically and thermally unique. Ambri is positioned as the only real solution to grid scale energy storage problems that continue to hold back renewable energy sources from their real potential.
Tesla and the $160/kWh battery of 2020.
Enthusiastic CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk says that the $600/kWh batteries of Today's Model S will be replaced by much more affordable lithium NMC batteries in the near future. Within the next decade there are expectations that the economies of large scale will drag the price of EV class lithium batteries down by 300% or more. This could mean an electric $85,000 sedan like the Model S with 1000 miles of range, or at much more affordable sub $25,000 electric car with 200 miles of range.
Cost innovations through component standardization, scale, and material science innovations will make less expensive materials that perform better, creating 80kWh vehicle energy storage systems in 2020 at the cost of the Nissan Leaf 24kWh battery of today.
Solid State Lithium Batteries
Today, lithium ion batteries are made of layers of materials with liquids in-between. Unfortunately the vapor pressure of these materials causes the batteries in our phones to swell up and fail when they are repeatedly over-charged, heated or deeply discharged. Laptops, tablets and cell phones all get warm when they are used, the CPU, GPU and memory shuffling data around in warm heat producing resistance as Google Maps and Angry Birds dominates the energy gobbling screens. These liquid sandwich lithium batteries are going to be eventually be replaced by Solid electrolyte batteries, where the liquid is replaced by solid polymers. It is believed that solid state lithium batteries will give 4x better overall performance than the liquid sandwich batteries of today. Heat tolerant, faster charging, better power and energy density, solid state battery technology will make mobile technology shine in the future.
Nano-porous gold was the only cathode known for good performance in Lithium Oxide batteries, until some bloke at a Scottish university discovered Titanium Carbide as a cost effective, lighter and more abundant alternative. Gold is too heavy and too expensive for anything other than plating the contacts of a battery terminal. TiC on the other hand can be used to build a practical lithium air battery. Cycle life early failures still plague the Lithium Air batteries of today, seeing as few as 50 charge cycles before battery death sets in. Lithium air batteries need to survive hundreds of recharge cycles if they are ever going to see the light of day in a real world mass produce product.
Lithium Air batteries are widely seen as the game changing EV batteries needed to demolish the range anxiety concerns of today. With the potential of 10x better performance, Lithium Air batteries will enable manufactures to produce amazing electric vehicles in the future. Imagine hundreds of miles of range, at low prices, with cycle life that gives decades of practical real world use, rapid charging and high performance. This is what Lithium Air technology will eventually bring to future electric vehicles.
I Sell Batteries
I work in a niche retail store that sells current battery technology. Lead Acid, NiCd, NiMH, Alkaline, Lithium Ion and Lithium Iron Phosphate. Cell phone and laptop computer batteries are the big Lithium sales, Lithium Cobalt Oxide batteries that are fragile and damaged by being overcharged, heated and deeply discharged. I see failed batteries roll in every day for recycling: bloated, leaking, corroded, so on. I change out car batteries and motorcycle batteries; I build custom NiCd and NiMH power packs for cordless power tools and electric bicycles. I see the whole gamut of practical real world batteries, their costs, their limits, their failure modes and applications.
I care about energy storage and energy conversion technologies and by divine intervention ended up working at a battery store. As a scientist, working a retail job with the general public is an ongoing education opportunity and a challenge. I find the amount of misinformation held by the general public about batteries highly concerning, and find some customers a challenge to deal with because of their unwillingness to listen to the truth. I try to give everyone the truth in a fair and balanced and accessible way. This blog posting is probably a little above the comprehension level of a few readers because of some of the jargon I used, but with a little bit of outside reading I am sure that most intelligent adults can make sense of what I am saying here, typos and all. In summary, many good battery innovations are waiting for us in the future, a future I think about and dream of often. My favorite batteries are Lithium Iron Phosphate, mostly used in higher performance solar yard lights, and more recently as power-sports starter batteries. My electric folding prodeco phantom x mountain bike has a Lithium Iron Phosphate battery *36v 12ah*
Wind and Solar are Clean
I dislike smog and air pollution: it is toxic and it smells bad, it also distorts pictures and sunlight. I know that vehicle tail pipe emissions and coal power are largely responsible for toxic air pollution. I see all of the smoky vehicles out on the road, tail pipes in the back, and wonder if the exhaust pipe was in the cabin, would people be pushing harder and demanding better emissions control technologies from the automakers. The problem with tail pipe emission is that the driver makes the emission someone else's problem. If you are riding a bicycle up a hill and a smoky older diesel vehicle passes you, and you have to breath that shit while you are working hard to climb the hill, you will have a good sense for why I care about reducing tail pipe emissions with technology.
Wine and Solar power are cleaner. A small solar panel is a silent non-moving power generator. I use one in my window to charge a sealed lead acid battery, which is then used to charge mobile electronics: I am literally charging with sunlight energy, my phone and tablet computers when the solar resources are sufficient to keep that system at high output. Sadly, the winter angle of the sun has my solar system crippled lightly. The panel produces enough power to keep the 35AH 12v SLA battery fully charged, and even gives enough now to keep my fitbit running on sun, but few solar watt hours are available for anything else right now.