Liquid Metal Battery Goes Into Production

The news is rife with claims of the next great thing in clean energy generation, but most of these technologies never make it to production. Whether that’s due to cost issues, production, or scalability, we’re often teased with industry breakthroughs that never come to fruition. Multi-layered solar panels, wave and tidal energy, and hydrogen fuel cells are all things that are real but can’t seem to break through and overtake other lower cost, simpler, and proven technologies. One that seems to be bucking this trend is the liquid metal battery, which startup Ambri is putting into service on the electrical grid next year.

With lithium ion battery installations running around $405 per kilowatt-hour, Ambri’s battery technology is already poised to be somewhat disruptive at a cost of about half that. The construction method is simpler than lithium as well, using molten metal electrodes and a molten salt electrolyte. Not only is this more durable, it’s also not flammable and is largely immune to degradation over time. The company’s testing results indicate that after 20 years the battery is expected to still retain 95% of its capacity. The only hitch in scaling this technology could be issues with sourcing antimony, one of the metals needed for this type of construction.

Even though Ambri can produce these batteries for $180 to $250 per kilowatt-hour, they need to get the costs down to about $20 for the technology to be cost-competitive with “base load” power plants (an outdated term in itself). They do project their costs to come down significantly and hit this mark by 2030, which would put electrical grids on course to be powered entirely by renewables. Liquid metal batteries aren’t the only nontraditional battery out there trying to solve this problem, though. Another promising interesting energy storage technology on the horizon is phase-change materials.

Better Robots Through Gallium

In the movie Terminator 2, the T-1000 robot was made of some kind of liquid metal that could change shape among other interesting things. According to a chemical engineer at North Carolina State University, there may be something to the idea. [Michael Dickey] has been experimenting with gallium, a liquid metal, that scientists think may unlock a new generation of flexible devices.

The most common liquid metal is mercury, of course, and it has its uses. However, its toxicity has led to a reduction in its use. Gallium has low toxicity and also doesn’t easily evaporate. What can you do with it? Check out the video below to see a very simple demonstration of the liquid metal lifting a small — very small — weight with an electrical impulse.

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Circuit Boards You Can Stretch: Liquid Metal Nanomaterials Make A Strange Flex

If you think polyimide-based flexible PCBs are cool, wait until you get a load of what polymerized liquid metal networks can do.

Seems like [CNLohr] has some pretty cool friends, and he recently spent some time with a couple of them who are working with poly LMNs and finding out what they’re good for. Poly LMNs use a liquid metal composed of indium and gallium that can be sprayed onto a substrate through a laser-cut stencil. This results in traces that show the opposite of expected behavior; where most conductors increase in resistance when stretched, pol LMNs stay just as conductive no matter how much they’re stretched.

The video below shows [CNLohr]’s experiments with the stuff. He brought a couple of traditional PCB-based MCU circuits, which interface easily with the poly LMN traces on a thick tape substrate. Once activated by stretching, which forms the networks between the liquid metal globules, the traces act much like copper traces. Attaching SMD components is as simple as sticking them to the tape — no soldering required. The circuits remain impressively stretchy without any apparent effect on their electrical properties — a characteristic that should prove interesting for wearables circuits, biological sensors, and a host of real-world applications.

While poly LMNs aren’t exactly ready for the market yet, they don’t seem terribly difficult to make, requiring little in the way of exotic materials or specialized lab equipment. We’d love to see someone like [Ben Krasnow] pick this up and run with it — it seems right up his alley.

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Reducing Carbon Emissions With Coal

It might seem like a paradox, but coal might hold the answer to solving carbon emission problems. The key isn’t burning it, but creating it using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  While this has always been possible in theory, high temperatures make it difficult in practice. However, a recent paper in Nature Communications shows how a special liquid metal electrocatalyst can convert the gas into a solid form of carbon suitable for, among other things, making high-quality capacitor electrodes. The process — you can see more about it in the video below — works at room temperatures.

It isn’t that hard to extract carbon dioxide from the air, the problem is what to do with it. Storing it as a gas or a liquid is inefficient and expensive, while converting it to a solid makes it much easier to store or even reuse for practical applications.

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Liquid Metal Changes Shape To Tune Antenna

Antennas can range from a few squiggles on a PCB to a gigantic Yagi on a tower. The basic laws of physics must be obeyed, though, and whatever form the antenna takes it all boils down to a conductor whose length resonates at a specific frequency. What works at one frequency is suboptimal at another, so an adjustable antenna would be a key component of a multi-band device. And a shape-shifting liquid metal antenna is just plain cool.

The first thing that pops into our head when we think of liquid metal is a silvery blob of mercury skittering inside the glass vial salvaged out of an old thermostat. The second image is a stern talking-to by the local HazMat team, so it’s probably best that North Carolina State University researchers [Michael Dickey] and [Jacob Adams] opted for gallium alloys for their experiments. Liquid at room temperature, these alloys have the useful property of oxidizing on contact with air and forming a skin. This allows the researchers to essentially extrude a conductor of any shape. What’s more, they can electrically manipulate the oxidative state of the metal and thereby the surface tension, allowing the conductor to change length on command. Bingo – an adjustable length antenna.

Radio frequency circuits aren’t the only application for gallium alloys. We’ve already seen liquid metal 3D printing with them. But we need to be careful, since controlling the surface tension of liquid metals might also bring us one step closer to this.