The PBS science series ‘NOVA’ performed a valuable service to the energy storage industry when airing its “Search for the Super Battery” episode on February 1, 2017. Hosted by technology writer David Pogue, the program explained the chemistry and designs of prominent energy storage technologies, and gave a sneak preview into the laboratories and fabrication plants of batteries on the cusp of commercial reality.
One of the most striking breakthroughs was a new lithium-ion (Li-ion) cell design. It replaces the notoriously flammable liquid electrolyte of conventional Li-ion cells with a solid polymer electrolyte, or ‘SPE’. The SPE is a specially designed plastic layer (rather than a liquid), that allows electrons to flow between the battery cell’s oppositely charged anode and cathode.
SPE batteries solid state design promises not only great safety improvements (especially fire retardancy) over liquid electrolyte Li-ion batteries, but potentially a significant leap in power density too. The SPE can withstand the buildup of dendrites from the lithium metal in the anode. Over time these dendrites grow out to the cathode, short-circuiting a Li-ion battery (which is what sets the liquid electrolyte on fire). By alleviating dendrites, SPEs may make way not only for safer Li-ion batteries but for much more power-dense—but equally light-weight and versatile—lithium metal batteries.
One of the leading SPE battery firms, Ionic Materials, led by Tufts University professor and materials scientist Mike Zimmerman, is featured in this rather amazing NOVA clip
In our ongoing innovative storage business model REV Demonstration Project with Con Edison, GI Energy is working with two different battery types. Most sites will host a conventional Li-ion battery packaged by NEC Energy Solutions (NEC). One will host an innovative zinc-manganese dioxide (Zn-MnO2) chemistry developed by Urban Electric Power (UEP), a product of chemists from the City University of New York Energy Institute. UEP’s design is new type of rechargeable alkaline battery—akin to an AA household battery —made of sustainable materials and offering performance comparable to Li-ion and lead acid batteries at potentially much lower cost.
Over the coming years, GI Energy is looking to work with innovative cell makers like UEP and Ionic Materials and perhaps facilitate their commercialization and mass deployment by bringing them together with innovative packagers like NEC for real-world projects. Assuming batteries continue on something like a “Moore’s Law” trend in terms of increasing power density and declining price over the next decade, the business models GI Energy is pursuing with them, including 3rd party front-of-the-meter installations with utility priority dispatch and optimized market participation, will become integral of the 21st century power grid.