Companies Have New Take On Old Energy Storage Tech

According to Spectrum, several companies are poised to make a splash storing energy with gravity. That sounds fancy and high tech at first, but is it, really? Sure, we usually think of energy storage as some sort of battery, but there are many energy storage systems that use water falling, for example, which is almost what this new technology is all about. Almost, since instead of water these new systems move around multi-ton blocks.

The idea itself is nothing new. You probably learned in high school that you have kinetic energy when a rock rolls down a hill, but a rock sitting on a mountain immobile has potential energy. These systems use the same idea. Moving the “rock” up stores energy and letting it fall releases the same energy. The big difference between the systems is what “up” means.

For Swiss company Energy Vault, the 35 metric ton bricks rise into the air manipulated by towers that look like alien construction cranes. To store energy, the crane builds a tower of bricks around itself. When the bricks return to the ground, they form a lower ring around the tower.

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Modified Bricks Can House Energy, Too

What if building an emergency battery were as easy as painting conductive plastic onto bricks, stacking them, and charging them up? Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have done just that — they’ve created supercapacitors by modifying regular old red bricks from various big-box hardware stores.

The bricks are coated in poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) polystyrene sulfonate (PEDOT:PSS), a conductive polymer that soaks readily into the bricks’ porous surface. When the coated brick is connected to a power source such as a solar panel, the polymer soaks up ions like a sponge. PEDOT:PSS reacts with the iron oxide in the bricks, the rust that gives them their reddish-orange color. Check out the demonstration after the break — it’s a time lapse that shows three PEDOT-coated bricks powering a white LED for ten minutes.

We envision a future where a brick house could double as a battery backup when the power goes out. The researchers thought of that too, or at least had their eye on the outdoors. They waterproofed the PEDOT-coated bricks in epoxy and found they retain 90% of their capacitance and are still efficient after 10,000 charge-discharge cycles. Since this doesn’t take any special kind of brick, it seems to us that any sufficiently porous material would work as long as iron oxide is also present for the reaction. What do you think?

If you can get your hands on the stuff, PEDOT:PSS has all kinds of uses from paper-thin conductors to homebrew organic LEDs.

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Hybrid Supercapacitors Are — Well — Super is promoting a new line of hybrid supercapacitors. By itself, that wouldn’t be very newsworthy, but the company claims these graphene-based supercapacitors merge the best features of both supercapacitors and lithium-ion batteries. Based on technology from a company called Shenzhen Toomen New Energy, the capacitors are optimized for either high energy or high power. They can reportedly charge and discharge 10-20 times faster than lithium-ion batteries. Of course, we’ve heard wild claims surrounding graphene capacitors before and, so far, they haven’t seemed very credible.

In addition to high performance, the company claims the capacitors are safe from overcharging, short circuit, and other safety issues that plague batteries. The devices are said to operate — including charging — from -40C to 80C. You can see a video from the company, below.

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Their Battery Is Full Of Air

Storing electrical energy is a huge problem. A lot of gear we use every day use some form of battery and despite a few false starts at fuel cells, that isn’t likely to change any time soon. However, batteries or other forms of storage are important in many alternate energy schemes. Solar cells don’t produce when it is dark. Windmills only produce when the wind blows. So you need a way to store excess energy to use for the periods when you aren’t creating electricity. [Kris De Decker] has an interesting proposal: store energy using compressed air.

Compressed air storage is not a new idea. On a large scale, there have been examples of air compressed in underground caverns and then released to run a turbine at a future date. However, the efficiency of this is poor — around 40 to 50 percent — mainly because the air heats up during compression and often needs to be prewarmed (using energy from another source) prior to decompression to prevent freezing. By comparison, batteries can be 70 to 90 percent efficient, although they have their own problems, too.

The idea explored in this paper is not to try to store a power plant’s worth of energy in a giant underground cavern, but rather use smaller compressed air setups like you would use batteries to store power at the point of consumption. The technology is called micro-CAES (an acronym for compressed air energy storage).

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Supercapacitor Uses No Carbon

Supercapacitors have found a myriad of uses due to their ability to rapidly charge and then deliver the power efficiently. Currently, production of supercapacitors requires materials made out of carbon which requires high temperatures and poses other manufacturing difficulties.

Researchers announced a new type of supercapacitor that uses no carbon and could have advantages over conventional technologies. The new research focuses on metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs. This material is extremely porous with a sponge-like structure. Since supercapacitors require large surface areas, that makes MOFs an interesting material for that application. However, MOFs are not very electrically conductive, which is a disadvantage.

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Semisolid Lithium Ion Batteries Promise Better Cars, Solar

Lithium-ion batteries make possible smaller and lighter electronics. Unfortunately, they are also costly to produce. In a conventional lithium-ion battery, many thin layers create the finished product much like filo dough in baklava. A startup company called 24M thinks they have the answer to making less expensive lithium-ion batteries: a semisolid electrode made by mixing powders and liquid to form an electrolyte goo.

Not only will the batteries be cheaper and faster to create, but the cost of the factory will be less. Currently, 24M has a pilot manufacturing line, but by 2020 they expect to scale to produce batteries that cost less than $100 per kilowatt hour (today’s costs are about $200 to $250 for conventional batteries). Under $100, the batteries become competitive with the cost of internal combustion engines, according to the article.

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Storing Energy In Liquid Form

Researchers in Singapore have created a new kind of redox flow battery with an energy density around ten times higher than conventional redox flow batteries. Never heard of a redox flow battery? These rechargeable batteries have more in common with fuel cells than conventional batteries. They use two circulating liquids separated by a membrane as an electrolyte. Each liquid has its own tank, and you can recharge it by pumping in fresh electrolyte. The redox in the name is short for reduction-oxidation and refers to the process that stores energy in the two liquids. You can learn more about flow batteries in the video from Harvard below.

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