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Posts Tagged ‘lithium’

Photo: Barry Chin/Globe.
Alolika Mukhopadhyay, senior research scientist at Alsym Energy, validating a battery reaction in a testing room. “Alsym has developed a new kind of rechargeable battery that doesn’t use lithium. Instead it relies on cheap, plentiful minerals,” reports the Boston Globe.

Oh, I wish so much luck to this startup in Massachusetts! Some of you may remember the 1960s line “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Right? Well, I am part of the lithium problem, and this startup is trying to obviate the need for that blood mineral in batteries. As we turn more and more to electric, lithium mines are damaging the environment and the human communities nearby. I feel guilty every time I think about it.

But Hiawatha Bray reports at the Boston Globe that “A small startup in Woburn called Alsym Energy is working on one of the world’s biggest problems — the need for better, cheaper batteries for cars, electric utilities, and even seagoing ships.

“Alsym’s founders, veteran entrepreneur Mukesh Chatter and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Kripa Varanasi, say they’ve built a new kind of rechargeable battery that delivers the performance of lithium ion cells at half the cost.

“That’s largely because the batteries don’t contain lithium or cobalt — scarce and expensive metals mostly controlled by China. And Alsym says they will never burst into flame like lithium batteries, because none of the ingredients are flammable.

“Now, the 47-person startup is striking deals with shipping companies and an automaker to prove its claims in real-world use. The company is just one of many worldwide that are scrambling to find practical alternatives to lithium ion batteries. …

“Alsym has been in stealth mode since its founding in 2015. In some ways, it still is. The front door of the company’s offices displays the name of a dance academy. And Chatter is extremely secretive about the chemistry that makes his battery work. He hasn’t even tried to patent it, because that would require revealing the formula. Instead, it’s a trade secret, like the recipe for Coca-Cola.

“But Chatter did offer a few hints. The electrolyte — the material that carries energy between the two electrodes — is water mixed with some solvents that Chatter won’t identify. One of the electrodes is mostly made of manganese oxide, but Chatter wouldn’t say anything about the composition of the other — just that there’s no lithium or cobalt involved, and that all the materials are nonflammable, non-toxic and inexpensive.

“The company has gained the trust of investors, who’ve poured $32 million into the project, with Helios Climate Ventures leading the way.

Chatter, who previously founded a pair of networking hardware companies, began Alsym as a way to provide reliable electricity in developing countries.

“ ‘About 2 billion people in the world either don’t have electricity or have it only part of the time,’ said Chatter. … Solar cells and windmills can help, but they must be backed up with batteries to provide consistent power. Lithium cells are too expensive and unstable; Chatter claims his company’s batteries are much safer and cheaper.

“Chatter says he’s landed $2 billion in pre-orders for Alsym batteries. A small factory at the Woburn headquarters has begun cranking out prototypes. Alsym batteries can be made using the same equipment found at any lithium ion battery plant; only the materials inside the batteries are different. That means existing battery plants could quickly switch over if and when the Alsym batteries prove their worth.

“The first buyers will be Singapore-based cargo ship manager Synergy Marine and Japanese cargo ship owner Nissen Kaiun. The two companies plan to equip up to 100 of their seagoing ships with Alsym batteries as an auxiliary power source.

“Alsym has also signed a deal with one of India’s biggest carmakers to provide electric car batteries, though Chatter won’t say which company. It’s a big test for Alsym, because the typical new car in India costs about $10,000. In US electric cars, the battery alone can cost more than that. …

“Alsym is also in negotiations with a utility that’s interested in using batteries to store power from solar and wind farms, and then release the electricity as needed to the local power grid.

“But Shirley Meng, a materials science professor at the University of Chicago, is very dubious. She said that laboratories worldwide are trying to find alternatives to lithium batteries, so far without much success. ‘Lithium has such great performance,’ Meng said. …

“Alternatives to lithium have been invented, Meng said. But so far, they’ve only worked reasonably well on a small scale. In addition, any new battery chemistry would require the development of a new global supply chain for all the chemicals and components needed to make it work, and that could take years. …

“We should find out in a few years. Synergy Marine and Nissen Kaiun plans to conduct three years of real-world testing starting in 2023. Meanwhile, Alsym plans to begin full-scale production of its batteries in 2025.”

More at the Globe, here.

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Photo: Tony Jolliffe/BBC.
Finnish researchers Markku Ylönen and Tommi Eronen, who came up with the sand-battery idea. Don’t these guys look just like the kind of young people you’d expect to tackle something impossible?

The big challenge for renewable energy sources like solar and wind has always been storage. Where is there a battery big enough and powerful enough to store the energy until it’s needed?

Bring on a couple wiz kids who think about daunting problems like global warming and overdependence on Russian gas.

Matt McGrath writes at the BBC, “Finnish researchers have installed the world’s first fully working ‘sand battery,’ which can store green power for months at a time. …

“Using low-grade sand, the device is charged up with heat made from cheap electricity from solar or wind. The sand stores the heat at around 500C (~932 degrees Fahrenheit), which can then warm homes in winter when energy is more expensive.

“Finland gets most of its gas from Russia, so the war in Ukraine has drawn the issue of green power into sharp focus. It has the longest Russian border in the EU and Moscow has now halted gas and electricity supplies in the wake of Finland’s decision to join NATO.

“Concerns over sources of heat and light, especially with the long, cold Finnish winter on the horizon are preoccupying politicians and citizens alike. But in a corner of a small power plant in western Finland stands a new piece of technology that has the potential to ease some of these worries.

“The key element in this device? Around 100 tonnes of builder’s sand, piled high inside a dull grey silo.

“These rough and ready grains may well represent a simple, cost-effective way of storing power for when it’s needed most.

“Because of climate change and now thanks to the rapidly rising price of fossil fuels, there’s a surge of investment in new renewable energy production. But while new solar panels and wind turbines can be quickly added to national grids, these extra sources also present huge challenges.

“The toughest question is about intermittency — how do you keep the lights on when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow? …

“The most obvious answer to these problems is large-scale batteries which can store and balance energy demands as the grid becomes greener.

“Right now, most batteries are made with lithium and are expensive with a large, physical footprint, and can only cope with a limited amount of excess power.

“But in the town of Kankaanpää, a team of young Finnish engineers have completed the first commercial installation of a battery made from sand that they believe can solve the storage problem in a low-cost, low impact way.

” ‘Whenever there’s like this high surge of available green electricity, we want to be able to get it into the storage really quickly,’ said Markku Ylönen, one of the two founders of Polar Night Energy who have developed the product.

“The device has been installed in the Vatajankoski power plant, which runs the district heating system for the area.

“Low-cost electricity warms the sand up to 500C by resistive heating (the same process that makes electric fires work). This generates hot air which is circulated in the sand by means of a heat exchanger.

“Sand is a very effective medium for storing heat and loses little over time. The developers say that their device could keep sand at 500C for several months.

“So when energy prices are higher, the battery discharges the hot air which warms water for the district heating system which is then pumped around homes, offices and even the local swimming pool.

The idea for the sand battery was first developed at a former pulp mill in the city of Tampere, with the council donating the work space and providing funding to get it off the ground.

” ‘If we have some power stations that are just working for a few hours in the wintertime, when it’s the coldest, it’s going to be extremely expensive,’ said Elina Seppänen, an energy and climate specialist for the city. ‘But if we have this sort of solution that provides flexibility for the use, and storage of heat, that would help a lot.’ …

“One of the big challenges now is whether the technology can be scaled up to really make a difference — and will the developers be able to use it to get electricity out as well as heat? The efficiency falls dramatically when the sand is used to just return power to the electricity grid. …

“Other research groups, such as the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory are actively looking at sand as a viable form of battery for green power. But the Finns are the first with a working, commercial system, that so far is performing well, according to the man who’s invested in the system.

” ‘It’s really simple, but we liked the idea of trying something new, to be the first in the world to do something like this,’ said Pekka Passi, the managing director of the Vatajankoski power plant.”

One of the aspects of this approach that I like best is that it doesn’t use lithium, a “blood mineral,” the mining of which often hurts local communities.

Check out the graphic at the BBC, here, to see how the sand-battery works.

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