GM mid-size pickups EPA-rated at 27 mpg highway, 22 mpg combined
Mercedes-Benz receives license for testing autonomous vehicles on California roads; differences between Germany and US

MIT team improves liquid metal batteries for grid-scale storage; lower operating temperature, cost

Researchers at MIT have improved a proposed liquid battery system that could enable renewable energy sources to compete with conventional power plants. Professor Donald Sadoway and colleagues have already started a company, Ambri (initially Liquid Metal Battery Corporation), to produce electrical-grid-scale liquid batteries, which comprise layers of molten material which automatically separate due to their differing densities. (Earlier post.)

In a paper published in the journal Nature, they describe a lithium–antimony–lead liquid metal battery comprising a liquid lithium negative electrode, a molten salt electrolyte, and a liquid antimony–lead alloy positive electrode, which self-segregate by density into three distinct layers owing to the immiscibility of the contiguous salt and metal phases.

The new composition substitutes different metals for the molten layers used in a battery previously developed by the team; the new formula allows the battery to work at a temperature more than 200 degrees Celsius lower than the previous formulation.

The all-liquid construction confers the advantages of higher current density, longer cycle life and simpler manufacturing of large-scale storage systems (because no membranes or separators are involved) relative to those of conventional batteries. At charge–discharge current densities of 275 milliamperes per square centimeter, the cells cycled at 450 degrees Celsius with 98 per cent Coulombic efficiency and 73 per cent round-trip energy efficiency.

To provide evidence of their high power capability, the cells were discharged and charged at current densities as high as 1,000 milliamperes per square centimeter. Measured capacity loss after operation for 1,800 hours (more than 450 charge–discharge cycles at 100 per cent depth of discharge) projects retention of over 85 per cent of initial capacity after ten years of daily cycling.

—Wang et al.

In addition to the lower operating temperature, which should simplify the battery’s design and extend its working life, the new formulation will be less expensive to make, Sadoway says.

The original system, which used magnesium for one of the battery’s electrodes and antimony for the other, required an operating temperature of 700 ˚C. But with the new formulation, with one electrode made of lithium and the other a mixture of lead and antimony, the battery can operate at temperatures of 450 to 500 ˚C.

Extensive testing has shown that even after 10 years of daily charging and discharging, the system should retain about 85% of its initial efficiency: a key factor in making such a technology an attractive investment for electric utilities.

Currently, the only widely used system for utility-scale storage of electricity is pumped hydro, in which water is pumped uphill to a storage reservoir when excess power is available, and then flows back down through a turbine to generate power when it is needed. Such systems can be used to match the intermittent production of power from irregular sources, such as wind and solar power, with variations in demand. Because of inevitable losses from the friction in pumps and turbines, such systems return about 70% of the power that is put into them (“round-trip efficiency”).

Sadoway says his team’s new liquid-battery system can already deliver the same 70% efficiency, and with further refinements may be able to do better. And unlike pumped hydro systems—which are only feasible in locations with sufficient water and an available hillside—the liquid batteries could be built virtually anywhere, and at virtually any size.

The fact that we don’t need a mountain, and we don’t need lots of water, could give us a decisive advantage.

—Donald Sadoway

The biggest surprise for the researchers was that the antimony-lead electrode performed so well. They found that while antimony could produce a high operating voltage, and lead gave a low melting point, a mixture of the two combined both advantages, with a voltage as high as antimony alone, and a melting point between that of the two constituents—contrary to expectations that lowering the melting point would come at the expense of also reducing the voltage.

The researchers had hoped that the characteristics of the two metals would be nonlinear, Sadoway said—i.e., the operating voltage would not end up halfway between that of the two individual metals.

They proved to be [nonlinear], but beyond our imagination. There was no decline in the voltage. That was a stunner for us.

—Donald Sadoway

Our results demonstrate that alloying a high-melting-point, high-voltage metal (antimony) with a low-melting-point, low-cost metal (lead) advantageously decreases the operating temperature while maintaining a high cell voltage. Apart from the fact that this finding puts us on a desirable cost trajectory, this approach may well be more broadly applicable to other battery chemistries.

—Wang et al.

The research was supported by the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and by French energy company Total.

Resources

  • Kangli Wang, Kai Jiang, Brice Chung, Takanari Ouchi, Paul J. Burke, Dane A. Boysen, David J. Bradwell, Hojong Kim, Ulrich Muecke & Donald R. Sadoway (2014) “Lithium–antimony–lead liquid metal battery for grid-level energy storage” Nature doi: 10.1038/nature13700

Comments

HarveyD

Another alternative to store large quantities of REs?

The Rockerfeller family may soon move a few $B from Oil into REs?

Engineer-Poet

Antimony is only slightly more abundant than silver.  This does not bode well for large-scale use of this formulation; they're going to have to keep looking.

ai_vin

@Harvey

About those Rockefellers? Looks like it; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/22/us/heirs-to-an-oil-fortune-join-the-divestment-drive.html?_r=1

SJC

antimony is used in lead–acid batteries, this addition improves the charging characteristics and reduces generation of unwanted hydrogen during charging.

China Hsikwangshan Twinkling Star 55,000
China Hunan Chenzhou Mining 20,000
China China Tin Group 20,000
China Shenyang Huachang Antimony 15,000

kalendjay

Actually, in a TED talk, Sadoway promised to make his battery 'as cheap as dirt' -- literally out of unspecified ingredients found in dirt. His company then claimed a new and better variant of the Mg-Mo battery he touted on TED, while explicitly keeping the recipe confidential. He made it sound like the Mg-Mo was ready to go.

Now we are back to expensive lithium. And for all the hooplah, he could have made variants based on mercury (unjustly maligned, room temperature), tin (easily melted and alloyed, though too easily mixed into lead), cesium (alkali, considered as a substitute organic reagent to sodium), bismuth (pepto-bismol)...

Are some scientists mostly successful because of their song and dance?

kalendjay

Correction: Sb not Mo. But he said THAT was cheap.

electric-car-insider.com

Whatever the final chemistry, I have no doubt the final configuration will be the cheapest practical materials for a given volume, operating temperature and performance.

Sadoway's innovation is the stationary storage liquid metal battery. If he is successful, it will completely change power generation, transmission and distribution. That's not enough?

Engineer-Poet

I'll be able to tell you if it's enough or not when I see what difference it makes in the field.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)