Will Nickel-Hydrogen Cells Be The Energy Storage Holy Grail?

You may have heard us here remarking in the past, that if we had a pound, dollar, or Euro for every miracle battery technology story we heard that was going to change the world, we would surely be very wealthy by now. It’s certainly been the case that many such pronouncements refer to promising chemistries that turn out only to be realizable in a lab, but here there’s news of one with a bit of pedigree. Nickel hydrogen batteries have a long history of use in space, and there’s a startup producing them now for use on the ground. Could they deliver the energy storage Holy Grail?

The cathode in a nickel-hydrogen battery is formed by nickel hydroxide, and the anode is formed of hydrogen. If a gas as an anode sounds far fetched, we’re guessing that their structure is similar to the zinc-air battery, in which zinc hydroxide forms in a paste of powdered zinc, and works against oxygen from the air over a porous conductive support. What gives them their exciting potential is their ability to take more than 30,000 charge/discharge cycles, and their relative safety when compared to lithium ion cells. Hydrogen in a pressure vessel might not seem the safest of things to have around, but the chemistry is such that as the pressure increases it reacts to form water. The cost of the whole thing is reduced further as new catalysts have replaced the platinum used by NASA on spacecraft.

We really hope that these batteries will be a success, but as always we’ll wait and see before calling it. They may well be competing by then with the next generation of zinc-air cells.

38 thoughts on “Will Nickel-Hydrogen Cells Be The Energy Storage Holy Grail?

  1. “Hydrogen in a pressure vessel might not seem the safest of things to have around, but the chemistry is such that as the pressure increases it reacts to form water”
    This doesn’t make any sense. The source article describes it in a better way:
    “We take the battery, put it in an open fire, and watch it continue to heat up. What ends up happening is that the pressure above top charge will force the hydrogen back into water. And then we have a release valve designed into the unit, so at a predesigned pressure and temperature that will release, and you’ll get a steam vent.”
    Hot steam doesn’t seam safe to me, but it beats an explosion or an open flame.

        1. That’s one of the critical reasons that water is effective in firefighting, but not the only one.
          Steam alone is, in fact, used as a fire extinguishing agent in industrial situations where it is readily available and practical. It functions in much the same way as a CO2 fire extinguisher, by displacing the oxygen needed for the fire to continue burning.

          See for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2LpddnXBSs

          Of course in most circumstances liquid water will still be a much more safe,versatile, and practical way to extinguish a fire than steam.

          I suppose if these batteries were in a fairly enclosed space full of other things that were on fire, they actually *could* do double duty as extinguishers once got hot enough to start venting… but it’d probably be a better idea not to store your batteries in that space to begin with.

  2. Dangit, we discussed this! If you phrase a news article title as a question, then eldritch powers of the universe itself will conspire, if they have to, in order to make the answer to that question “no.” You can’t keep dooming promising new battery technologies like this!

  3. Nope, big siloses full of sand at 600°C will be the future of energy storage. It’s literally cheap as sand. You don’t even need particularly good sand (like for cement, it seems we are depleting it).

    1. Heat in some cheap mass is definitely a part of the future assuming sanity ever happens in the building regulation civic planning type departments of the world to make it a requirement. But cheap and useful as it will be it isn’t very widely applicable or at all efficient for all the cases you want to store energy. In the same way its very very hard to beat a pumped hydro for efficiency, running costs, energy storage potential at least assuming you have suitable geography.

      This and the many other potential capacitor, battery and fuel cell like technologies can be used very much more widely and perhaps if it is able to get out of the lab become the default in the way alkaline battery and lead acid once were and Lithium currently is. To the point lithium cells are put in disposable single use items!

      1. blow hot air into towers filled with sand. hot air comes from electric heaters running off grid power during the summer months. when the weather gets cold you blow air over the sand and have a forced air heating system that you can use to supplement your winter time heating for a farm, factory, or warehouse. This means Finland doesn’t have to buy natural gas from Russia, and Germany should adopt similar strategies to protect itself from energy related political confrontations.

      1. You won’t use grid-level batteries for your car, but a 40000L tank (about the size of the biggest commercial road cistern) will store about 13MWh of energy (between 600°C and 100°C, suitable for most steam turbines).

    2. Just saw a news item that the Brits want to run undersea powerlines to the Moroccan desert and build solar power instalations there.
      It’s a very very very long powerline, under the sea. I hate to think of the rise of copper prices beause of the market availability drop. (That hate is also based on the increasing cases where I come across CCA, sigh, such an annoying thing.)

      1. Hey, it’s only half the distance between Los Angeles and Kansas City. Ultimately one would sell the power to the nearest grid, and use the profit to buy power from another grid. I suspect the undersea cable would only have to reach Spain for a UK-owned Moroccan solar panel scheme to work.

        1. The idea is to have the UK comply to the zero (or low) carbon agreements, and it’s so pricey to set up that it would no doubt involve government financial support.
          In other words it’s not for profit and so selling it off is not the idea and would in fact defeat the whole purpose since sure they would get money but they then would retain the carbon output levels of the UK.
          Plus I imagine spain can have its own local solar power since it’s known as a sunny country (and lately a bit too sunny at times I hear).

  4. With a cell size of 1.8M x 0.15M (6ft x 6 inches) for a 3kWh unit then I can’t see it being useful for either hobbyists or automotive. Grid storage maybe, but let’s see it actually in production and how it compares to, say Sodium Ion cells.

        1. U.S. nickels use 5 grams of metal: 75% copper, 25% nickel, no particular zinc. At five cents, assuming perfect recovery you would spend $36k per ton of nickel, which is still greater than the current trading price, but not to an incredible degree. The first random figure I googled estimates about 90 thousand tons are tied up in circulating nickels. The other random search says that’s about as much as is produced in a week worldwide.

  5. > exciting potential is their ability to take more than 30,000 charge/discharge cycles

    That’s a red herring. In grid storage, the larger storage needs are in long term storage where you get very few cycles – sometimes only one cycle per year – so you never end up “consuming” even a regular lithium battery. What’s more important is the shelf-life and self-discharge rate of the battery.

    NiH batteries have a very long shelf life, but they absolutely suck at self-discharge. You can’t store energy in them for more than a few days.

    1. What? The main reason people have used as their reason that solar is evil is that extra is generated at noon and not enough in the evening, but we don’t have the grid storage to smooth that out. Grid storage makes money by trading between low and high prices; when the price of storage is highly correlated with the capacity for batteries, the way to make a quick return from a typical battery is to trade more often than one capacity-worth of power a year. Even if you had free power, if your $2 battery takes 4 years to sell one cent worth of power, nobody’s going to do it that way.

      Sure, for certain uses, you can eschew batteries and use a big thermal mass but all you can do with it is make heating cheaper or make power inefficiently if you happen to have a steam turbine lying around not being used. It’s really not a competitor to long-life, reasonable-capacity, easy to make batteries.

      If this kind of battery were cheap enough, it’s not necessarily a bad idea. It’s still a nickel battery, but it eschews needing a material to catch the hydrogen by just building a tank. And if you put most of the volume of the hydrogen on the other side of a valve, you can close the valve to stop self-discharging. My main thought is just that it’s nickel, and we do need that for a lot of other things.

    1. You didn’t think stopping climate change would be cheap did you? It’s going to cost a lot of money and involve a lot of stupid, so get ready for more climate saving products like this to be legislated soon.

  6. I read a paper back in the early 2000s about what our economy would look like had we embraced hydrogen as a fuel over gasoline. It was as much a fiction piece as an argument for using H2. Anyway the short version was that we would view gasoline as too toxic and volatile to use.

    Spent time as a fire fighter in college and I can honestly say that I think gasoline is far more dangerous than compressed hydrogen. BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions) are extremely dangerous, but they can be mitigated with high temp one way valves. Plus hydrogen doesn’t spread over the road into a burning puddle that takes a carcinogenic foam to put out.

  7. I really need to find that paper and post it. I think it addressed the energy density issue with more fuel stations and hot swap fuel bottles similar to the battery packs you see on e-bikes and some concept cars.

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