Batteries to save the day?

Innovation and breakthroughs that will make batteries relevant for years to come

We discuss the future of energy storage based on new studies on lithium-ion batteries and technological breakthroughs in the form of water-fuelled batteries to be implemented come 2020, all from the perspectives of feasibility and cost.

Where did my energy go? This might seem a too farfetched question, but for some it is vital. Energy storage is likely to become equally as important as energy generation itself. While energy production methods are still up for debate, fossil versus green, the world agrees that we do indeed need smarter and more effective energy storing options. Enter batteries. Widely used as a form of energy storage already, they might just show their true potential in years to come by becoming the cheapest option for storing electricity. The technology itself likely just needs a nudge in the right direction. Is science ready to provide it?

According to a new study, by 2050 the cheapest way to store electricity from sources like wind farms or solar, will be lithium-ion based batteries. Several methods of storage are comprised in this study, among which feature large-scale batteries and pumped-storage hydroelectricity. Of course, the inherent future costs are also calculated. The winner seems to be the lithium-ion battery especially when talking about consumers managing their bills and making sure energy grids are protected from fluctuations. This new study which was published at the Imperial College London might be exactly what the doctor ordered for investors and policymakers on the lookout for solutions in the energy storage technologies business. What’s different from other forays into the subject is that this specific study focuses not only on investment cost, but also on the full cost of storing, including investment, operation and charging cost, technology lifetime, efficiency and performance degradation. Their model is quite the pioneer, according to Oliver Schmidt: “Our model is the first to project full energy storage costs into the future, allowing predictions of which technology will be most competitive in a particular application at a particular time.”[1].

Presently, the cheapest solution is advocated to be the pumped-storage hydroelectricity but it does have its drawbacks: over time the cost does not decrease. This is where the lithium-ion gains the upper hand, seeing as costs for this technology actually decrease over time; it is set to become the cheapest option for most needs by 2030. Some exceptions come from situations when the stored energy must be discharged frequently or over a long time period. The fix for these situations is represented by hydrogen storage and flywheel technologies. The main plus for lithium-ion and the factor that will eventually see its value decrease for the next decades is the fact that they are manufactured at scale. Dr Iain Staffell adds: “We have found that lithium-ion batteries are following in the footsteps of crystalline silicon solar panels. First-generation solar cells were high performance but very expensive, so cheaper second-and third-generation designs were developed to supersede them. However, sheer economies of scale mean these first-generation panels now cannot be beaten on price.”[2] It stands to reason that more common place a resource is, the cheaper it will be. Schimdt goes on to add that other technologies should not be immediately considered obsolete as a result, rather an optimization of efficiency and performance is required if they are to be deployed globally. The model is openly available for all to use and run their own simulations with specific data.

Another interesting development is the water-fuelled battery. Log 9 Materials, an Indian company, branch of the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, has brought forward a metal air battery with and energy density ten times that of conventional lithium-ion. The battery uses graphene and its fuel is water, as a result requiring refilling every 100 kilometres. The only component that has to be regularly replaced is the aluminium anode, every 1000 kilometres, and even better news – it is recyclable. This would allow for circumventing the need for recharging, charging stations and inherent infrastructure, as well as assuring zero emissions. But it does not stop here: other benefits include smart energy generation and storage as well as decreased reliance on cobalt. This concept is already present in our thoughts for the future, with companies already researching similar technologies. As expected, the leader in EV vehicle market, namely Tesla, has already shown interest. The drawbacks for this technology include the inevitable loss of battery performance due to corrosion and as such plans for prototype use in mobility applications are scheduled for 2020. Allegedly, this technology is expected to be cheaper or equal to the current lithium-ion offer.

Luckily, 2020 and indeed 2030 are just around the corner and we’ll get to see these improvements in action. Plans sound good, but experience will tell if this is indeed the best option. However, we never know what’s around the corner. Who’s to say we will not find something better in the meantime?



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