Sun On The Run: Diving Into Solar With A Mobile PV System

For obvious reasons, there has been a lot of interest in small-scale residential solar power systems lately. Even in my neck of the woods, where the sun doesn’t shine much from October to April, solar arrays are sprouting up on rooftops in a lot of local neighborhoods. And it’s not just here in suburbia; drive a little way out into the country or spend some time looking around in Google maps and it won’t take long to spy a sizable array of PV panels sitting in a field next to someone’s ranch house or barn.

Solar has gotten to the point where the expense of an installation is no longer a serious barrier to entry, at least if you’re willing to put in a little sweat equity and not farm the project out to a contractor. Doing it yourself requires some specialized tools and knowledge, though, over and above your standard suite of DIY skills. So, in the spirit of sharing hard-won knowledge, I decided to take the somewhat unusual step of writing up one of my personal projects, which has been in progress for a couple of years now and resulted in a solar power system that isn’t on a rooftop or a ground-mounted array at all, but rather is completely mobile: my solar trailer.

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Aqueous Battery Solves Lithium’s Problems

The demand for grid storage ramps up as more renewable energy sources comes online, but existing technology might not be up to the challenge. Lithium is the most popular option for battery storage right now, not just due to the physical properties of the batteries, but also because we’re manufacturing them at a massive scale already. Unfortunately they do have downsides, especially with performance in cold temperatures and a risk of fires, which has researchers looking for alternatives like aqueous batteries which mitigate these issues.

An aqueous battery uses a water-based electrolyte to move ions from one electrode to the other. Compared to lithium, which uses lithium salts for the electrolyte, this reduces energy density somewhat but improves safety since water is much less flammable. The one downside is that during overcharging or over-current situations, hydrogen gas can be produced by electrolysis of the water, which generally needs to be vented out of the battery. This doesn’t necessarily damage the battery but can cause other issues. To avoid this problem, researchers found that adding a manganese oxide to the battery and using palladium as a catalyst caused any hydrogen generated within the battery’s electrolyte to turn back into water and return to the electrolyte solution without issue.

Of course, these batteries likely won’t completely replace lithium ion batteries especially in things like EVs due to their lower energy density. It’s also not yet clear whether this technology, like others we’ve featured, will scale up enough to be used for large-scale applications either, but any solution that solves some of the problems of lithium, like the environmental cost or safety issues, while adding more storage to an increasingly renewable grid, is always welcome.

Old Prius Gets Upgraded Batteries

So many of the batteries made today are lithium batteries of some sort, from mobile phones, laptops, and drones to electric cars and grid storage solutions. But this technology is relatively new; even as late as the 90s and early 00s the only widely-available batteries for things like power tools or the new hybrid vehicles coming on the market were nickel-metal hydride (NiMH). While it was good for the time, they don’t hold up to all of the advantages lithium has. There’s still plenty of hybrid vehicles on the road using these batteries, so if you’re driving an older Prius and want to give it a modern refresh, there’s a quick option to swap your old batteries.

Despite lithium technology being available for several decades, the switch to lithium for the Toyota Prius wasn’t instant, with many variants still using NiMH batteries as late as the 2020s largely because the NiMH batteries are less expensive and less maintenance-intensive than lithium batteries are. As these batteries lose capacity, the cars are still driveable but the advantages of the hybrid drivetrain won’t be as accessible anymore. The upgrade, from a company called Project Lithium, replaces these batteries with modern lithium technology that can improve the efficiency and performance of these cars even above their original capabilities since lithium batteries have more power density.

With the Toyota Prius being among the most reliable vehicles on the road thanks to the electric motor in the hybrid drivetrain taking a lot of stress off of the internal combustion engine, it’s often worth upgrading these old batteries to modern ones to squeeze every last mile from these workhorses as possible. With many of the replacement processes being almost as simple as lifting out an old battery and placing a new one in, it can be a no-brainer if that’s the only issue with the vehicle otherwise. This is also true of all-electric vehicles as well, although the process to replace the battery can be a little more involved.

Thanks to [JohnU] for the tip!

Rock Salt May Lead The Way To Better Batteries

The regular refrain here when it comes to announcements of new battery chemistries hailed as potentially miraculous is that if we had a pound, dollar, or Euro for each one we’ve heard, by now we’d be millionaires. But still they keep coming, and it’s inevitable that there will one or two that break through the practicality barrier and really do deliver on their promise. Which brings us tot he story which has come our way today, the suggestion that something as simple as rock salt could triple the energy density of a lithium-ion vehicle battery.

The research led from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory started around the use of cobalt in the battery cathode, an expensive and finite resource with the added concern of being in large part a conflict mineral from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is used in  the cathodes because its oxide crystals form a stable layered structure into which the lithium ions can percolate. Alternative layered-structure metal oxides perform less well in retaining the lithium ions, making them unsuccessful substitutes. It seems that the three-dimensional structure of a rock salt crystal performs up to three times better than any layered oxide, which is where the excitement comes from.

Of course, if it were that simple we’d all be using three-times-more-powerful, half-price 18650s right now, which of course we aren’t. The challenge comes in making a rock salt cathode which both holds the lithium ions, and keeps that property reliably over the thousands of charge cycles needed for a real-world application. This one may yet be anther dollar on that metaphorical pile, but it just might give us the batteries we’ve been looking for.

Then again, when you’re looking at exciting battery chemistry, why limit yourself to lithium?

Determining The Size Of The New US Lithium Deposit Amidst Exploding Demand

With demand for lithium in the world market projected to increase by 2040 to as much as eight times the demand in 2022, finding new deposits of this metal has become a priority. Currently most of the world’s lithium comes from Australia, Chile, China and Argentina, with potential new mining sites under investigation. One of these sites is the McDermitt caldera in the US, a likely remnant of the Yellowstone hotspot and resulting volcanic activity. According to a recent study (Chemistry World article) by Thomas R. Benson and colleagues in Science Advances, this site may not only contain between 20 to 40 million tons of lithium in the form of the mineral clay illite, but was also formed using a rather unique process.

This particular group of mineral clays can contain a number of other chemicals, which in this particular case is lithium due to the unique way in which the about 40 meter thick layer of sediment was formed. Although lithium is a very common metal, its high reactivity means that it is never found in its elementary form, but instead bound to other elements. Lithium is thinly distributed within the Earth’s crust and oceans. Incidentally, the Earth’s oceans contain by far the largest amount of lithium, at approximately 230 billion tons.

So how much lithium could be extracted from this new area, and how does this compare to the increasing demand?

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A Deep Dive On Battery Life

There are all kinds of old wives’ tales surrounding proper battery use floating around in the popular culture. Things like needing to fully discharge a battery every so often, unplugging devices when they’re fully charged, or keeping batteries in the fridge are all examples that have some kernel of truth to them but often are improperly applied. If you really want to know the truth about a specific battery, its behavior, and its features, it helps to dig in and actually take some measurements directly like [Tyler] has done with a vast array of embedded batteries in IoT devices.

[Tyler] is a firmware engineer by trade, so he is deeply familiar with this type of small battery. Battery performance can change dramatically under all kinds of scenarios, most important among them being temperature. But even the same type of battery can behave differently to others that are otherwise identical, which is why it’s important to have metrics for the batteries themselves and be able to measure them to identify behaviors and possible problems. [Tyler] has a system of best practices in place for monitoring battery performance, especially after things like firmware upgrades since small software changes can often have a decent impact on battery performance.

While working with huge fleets of devices, [Tyler] outlines plenty of methods for working with batteries, deploying them, and making sure they’re working well for customers. A lot of it is extremely useful for other engineers looking to develop large-scale products like this but it’s also good knowledge to have for those of us rolling out our own one-off projects that will operate under battery power. After all, not caring for one’s lithium batteries can have disastrous consequences.

Miners Vs NASA: It’s A Nevada Showdown

Mining projects are approved or disapproved based on all kinds of reasons. There are economic concerns, logistical matters, and environmental considerations to be made. Mining operations can be highly polluting, or they can have outsized effects on a given area by sheer virtue of the material they remove or the byproducts they leave behind.

For a proposed lithium mining operation north of Las Vegas, though, an altogether stranger objection has arisen. NASA has been using the plot of land as a calibration tool, and it doesn’t want any upstart miners messing with its work. 

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