MIT Nanotech Battery – an Edison Style Innovation

Over 100 years ago, Edison’s work with storage batteries for electric vehicles often took on mythic proportions. Tens of thousands of experiments were conducted and untold man-hours expended to develop his legendary and rugged nickel-iron storage battery; a product that was widely sold and adapted to many applications and industries. Were Edison alive today he would be clapping loudly at the new MIT Flow Battery-emerging from the research lab to be commercialized by 24M Technologies.

A sample of 'Cambridge crude' — a black, gooey substance that can power a highly efficient new type of battery. A prototype of the semi-solid flow battery is seen behind the flask. | Photo: Dominick Reuter

A sample of 'Cambridge crude' — a black, gooey substance that can power a highly efficient new type of battery. A prototype of the semi-solid flow battery is seen behind the flask. | Photo: Dominick Reuter

Researchers at MIT have used nanotechnology and proven lithium-ion chemistry to completely revolutionize how we think about the venerable storage battery. It could be the holy grail for making electric vehicles very competitive. Called a flow battery, the two thick-gooey chemical mixtures of this system are kept in separate containers until energy is needed – then the reactants flow through a special reactor to produce electricity. What this means is re-charging a battery is no longer about long waits as it is stuffed with electricity, but simply pumping fresh liquids into the separate tanks…..perhaps not so different in the future as saying “filler ‘er up” as we do now at a traditional gasoline station.

The technological magic resides in the gooey black liquids, which for all purposes can be envisioned as liquefied versions of the anode[negatively charged] and cathode [positively charged] of a battery. The positive and negative posts are distributed throughout the black goo in the two tanks in the form of nano-particles. In the energy making process, the two oppositely charged liquids are pumped past a special membrane in the reactor and out comes clean electricity to run your car.

Source: Internet announcements of MIT Flow Battery-showing the two storage tanks and reactor for producing clean electricity.

Source: Internet announcements of MIT Flow Battery-showing the two storage tanks and reactor for producing clean electricity.

This reinterpretation of a battery into separate structures changes lots of things. For one, it could be much cheaper to make these systems than traditional batteries. The energy storage capability or energy density of these systems could be radically improved over traditional batteries….maybe pushing electric vehicle range to being on par with gasoline vehicles. One could make different grades of black goo for better performance and improved mileage. The system might last longer than expensive storage batteries of today. Certainly, this MIT advance changes the battery universe…..a disturbance in the force, ala` Star Wars. Energy storage for such things as wind and solar system applications may also realize significant gains.

Lots more testing and demonstrations are no doubt being planned for this technology, but this is one of the most promising battery advances to come down the road. It just might make it possible for Edison to realize his dream of an electric vehicle transportation system; and for our nation to kick the oil habit.

Thomas Edison on Time MagazineEditor’s Deep Dive:

“Great ideas originate in the muscles.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.

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