Edison Admires New Water-Battery Technology

Think about an energy storage device that can store intermittent solar and wind energy in the form of hydrogen gas…..a kind of manganese-hydrogen battery. This water-based battery is under prototype development at Stanford University, and if successfully scaled up, can be recycled 10,000 times for use directly on the utility grid.

Postdoctoral scholar Wei Chen holds a prototype of Stanford’s water-based battery.

Postdoctoral scholar Wei Chen holds a prototype of Stanford’s water-based battery.

Manganese sulfate, a cheap, abundant industrial salt that is used to make dry cell batteries, fertilizers, paper and other products is the secret sauce in this technology; allowing hydrogen to be formed and stored and converted back to electricity later.

The Stanford team, working under US Department of Energy funding, estimates that over the expected lifetime of the energy storage system (10 years), it would cost a penny to store enough electricity to power a 100 watt lightbulb for twelve hours.

According to DOE estimates, about 70 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by coal or natural gas plants, which account for 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. Shifting to wind and solar generation is one way to reduce those emissions but it creates new challenges involving the variability of power supply.

The Stanford team is now performing some heavy duty engineering to meet demanding grid-scale performance criteria. The palm-size prototype uses platinum as a catalyst to spur crucial chemical reactions. This material is expensive, so the team is concerned with cheaper ways to make the manganese sulfate and water combination charge and discharge correctly.

Editor’s Deep Dive

Thomas Edison said, “The world owes nothing to any man, but every man owes something to the world.”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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Batteries for Electric Utility Support

In Springfield Missouri, the local utility (Cities Utilities) and a battery manufacturer (NorthStar) are demonstrating how battery storage can help reinforce and extend the life of a substation in a growing area of the city. They are joining a movement in the utility industry to use batteries to defer costly system reinforcements.

The 1,140 installed 12-volt lead acid batteries will help smooth the substation’s load as the weather heats up, and allow it to postpone or perhaps eliminate the need for costly upgrades in an area where commercial and residential electric load growth is growing. NorthStar sells lead acid batteries around the world, largely for use in vehicles, cellphone towers and backup power systems.

This is NorthStar’s first foray into the utility energy storage market, confident the project will demonstrate that its batteries can play a role in managing the electric grid. This utility-business partnership has the support of clean energy advocates.

Batteries can be a very viable alternative to traditional reinforcements to utility substations, which often can involve additional distribution infrastructure or perhaps local generation. Batteries are relatively cheap, modular and can be deployed in months; and if necessary, even moved.

Tom cradles his legendary Nickel-Iron storage battery

Tom cradles his legendary Nickel-Iron storage battery


The utility/manufacturer team will closely monitor the $1 million, 1.1 MW battery system, especially as increasing summer temperatures impact the local grid served by the substation. Charging and discharging the batteries in a balanced manner is important to monitor and assess as well.

Why choose lead acid batteries? While lithium batteries are much lighter, can charge more quickly and generally have longer lifespans than lead batteries, they also require cobalt, a mineral with an escalating price and potential supply challenges in the future. And the lead in nearly all batteries is recycled. Recycling systems don’t yet exist for lithium batteries.

Can you envision Thomas Edison smiling down on all this, so visionary in his development of battery systems way back in the early 1900s! And don’t forget, our modern electric utility system stems directly back to old Tom and his central station concept and electric distribution system demo in New York City in 1882.

Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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Thomas Edison Admires Molten Carbonate Fuel Cells as a “Killer App”

Fuel cells are both fascinating and highly promising. Edison actually tried his inventive hand at very early fuel cell technology— see a previous blog we published at www.edisonmuckers.org/fuel-cells-with-a-thomas-edison-connection/. Nationally, we first learned about fuel cells during the U.S. space missions of the 1960s where they were used in the Apollo moon landing vehicles [remember: “Houston we have a problem!”]. Today they are being touted as possible clean energy sources for our oil-addicted, and terribly polluting, internal combustion engines.

One of the special fuel cell technologies, known as molten carbonate fuel cells, is especially promising. Operating at high temperatures, this fuel cell can be used to recycle/capture carbon dioxide from power plants, and while doing so, generate clean electricity as well to supplement the output of the power plant it is attached to. Think of it as a gateway to carbon dioxide [and thus carbon itself] sequestration.

How a molten carbonate fuel cell works

How a molten carbonate fuel cell works

Think of a large coal-fired power plant or perhaps a natural gas-fired hybrid power plant that is producing electricity, and also pumping out carbon dioxide. What if it is possible to attach a piece of equipment to these power plants that literally filters out the carbon dioxide, stores it; and allows that carbon rich air stream to be used for the fuel cell to generate its own clean electrical power? People would salute that don’t you think-after all it’s a win-win for the earth’s air quality.

Carbon dioxide in the normal fuel cell’s operation is recycled because it plays an active part in the electrochemical process within the fuel cell. By breaking this recycling loop, the carbon dioxide can be concentrated, stored and used for other purposes; or perhaps injected into the ground. Fresh carbon dioxide would always be available as the operational fossil-fired power plant would generate it.

A molten carbonate fuel cell plant for use with an existing or new power plant

A molten carbonate fuel cell plant for use with an existing or new power plant

At the James M. Barry Electric Generating Station, operated by Southern Company, FuelCell Energy Inc. and ExxonMobil, working under Department of Energy agreements will host a test of fuel cell carbon capture technology. Typical existing carbon capture processes at power plants consume energy. This technology has the potential to increase electricity production, reduce costs and lead to a more economical method of large-scale carbon capture; and allow our nation to continue to use its vast coal and natural gas resources. Thomas Edison would applaud the fuel cell work done so far and anxiously await more progress!

Editor’s Deep Dive

Thomas Edison said, “If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves …”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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