Have Scientists Unlocked Better Energy Storage in Water-Based Batteries?
Products from electric cars to connected electronics rely on batteries to work. However, many resources required in battery production are increasingly scarce, leading researchers to look for feasible alternatives, including those related to aqueous energy storage. It would be much easier to source materials for a water-based battery than one made with precious metals or other scarce resources.
Water-Based Battery Electrodes Offer 1,000% More Storage
In one case, a team found that water-based batteries had a 1,000 times greater storage capacity than others. Texas A&M University researchers discovered that difference when working with metal-free products that rely on aqueous energy storage.
One of the group’s goals was to develop a product that would contribute to a stronger domestic supply chain. They knew nickel and cobalt are typically outsourced but agreed it’s better to obtain them domestically. It’s also beneficial that these innovative batteries have safer chemistry to eliminate fire risks.
The researchers said battery prices would rise if materials become as scarce as predicted in the coming years. Thus, looking for alternatives is essential before conventional batteries become prohibitively costly.
How Do the Batteries Work?
Each of these batteries has an anode, cathode and electrolyte. The anodes and cathodes are energy-storing polymers, and the electrolyte is a water-organic salt mixture. Ion conduction and power storage occur when they interact.
Why can this water-based battery store so much more than others? The scientists believe it comes down to how much the chosen electrolyte mitigates electrode swelling. Too much swelling during the battery cycle prevents it from conducting electrons as well, and performance drops. The likely reason for the 1,000% increase in energy storage capacity is that the electrolyte manages swelling.
Additional experiments have focused on the best electrodes to choose and investigate how they affect other things in their environment at various battery-charge states. Another test involved macroscopically examining the cathode’s performance related to different kinds of salts.
Soon, the team hopes to expand their research from laboratory-based simulations to learning how their discoveries might fit into future systems. Such work is vital as people continue exploring water-based batteries.
Switzerland Unveils Massive Water-Based Battery Storage
Aqueous energy storage is the focus, but it’s important to recognize that people are also looking toward future options in other ways. Some companies develop cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which are more efficient than electric cars.
Work has also involved using compressed air energy storage methods. Affordability is one of the primary advantages of that option. It has an approximately $1,500-per-kilowatt capital cost, making it relatively reasonable compared to other possibilities.
Industry progress will occur as people learn more about these energy management technologies and applications. People will also get firsthand experience with innovations that could become world-leading improvements. One example comes from a water-based battery that will be used in Switzerland and become a significant renewable energy source for the European Union.
The most remarkable thing at this early stage is that it can store energy equivalent to 400,000 car batteries. This pumped-storage power plant concept is slightly different from what the Texas A&M researchers tried, but it still relies on water as a main energy source.
This aqueous energy storage method works based on hydroelectric energy principles. It requires two large water pools placed at different heights. Battery charging or storage occurs when water moves from the lower pool to the higher one. Energy generation occurs by changing the water’s direction, using its force to rotate a turbine and make hydroelectric power.
A water-based battery like this one is especially useful for storing excess energy from sources where the supply is not always consistent — such as wind and solar. Thus, research on similar projects could accelerate as renewable energy adoption rates do.
Commercial Aqueous Energy Storage Options Are Still Not Mainstream
A couple of commercial options exist, but it’s too early to say whether they will gain enough traction to become well-known by people in and outside the battery technology industry.
One of them comes from Massachusetts battery startup Alsym Energy. Its water-based battery requires no lithium, cobalt or nickel. Representatives also say it costs 50% of conventional lithium-ion batteries. However, other details are scarce. The need to protect intellectual property keeps company employees tight-lipped, which makes it difficult to see how certain innovations in this space compare to others. One shared detail was that this battery has a water-based electrolyte with no organic solvents.
Elsewhere, Leclanché SA, another battery technology company, reportedly achieved a breakthrough in producing G/NMCA cells. It has made water-based battery progress by manufacturing electrodes with an eco-friendly production process. The new cells also have a 20% higher energy density despite no changes in their size or weight.
The people behind this improvement also noted that water-binder-based NMCA cathodes are recyclable and easier to dispose of. Leclanché SA is also the first company in the world to have implemented this process for making lithium-ion batteries. That feat could result in an ongoing competitive advantage while other businesses catch up and create their own improvements.
This Battery Research Is Essential
It could be years before a consumer could choose to have a water-based battery in a new car. However, this progress in aqueous energy storage will move society toward a future of reduced dependence on battery materials that are too difficult or expensive to source.
After all, water is a plentiful resource in many areas of the world. Using it could reduce supply chain stresses that lead to production delays from many battery manufacturers. This is an exciting time for engineers, producers and others with a well-defined interest in the battery technology space.
Water-based batteries won’t solve every energy-storage need, but they open new possibilities. Researchers who learn more about what does and doesn’t work well can apply that knowledge to future work, and others working on similar projects can use the findings as jumping-off points that save time and lead to better results.
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