Imagine a brave new world where an affordable family electric vehicle (EV) could cover the distance between New York City and Washington, D.C., on a single battery charge. It remains a fantasy, but perhaps not for long. Scientists at GE Global Research and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are developing a new kind of water-based “flow” battery for EVs that could achieve this driving range and go beyond it.
Grigorii Soloveichik, who leads the project at GRC and serves as the director of the GE-led and Department of Energy-funded Energy Frontier Research Center, says that the batteries could be 75 percent cheaper than those available on the market today and might also multiply the current EV driving range. “The DOE wants a battery that can power a car for 240 miles,” he says. “We think we can exceed that goal.”
Imagine these formerly dumb systems gone smart: a roof that announces when it’s about to spring a leak; a garden that monitors moisture on its own and applies just the right amount of water when it’s needed; and a bridge that automatically puts in a work order at the first sign of a hairline crack in a support structure.
These are just a few of the innovations promised by the growth of the industrial internet, a communications network in which objects and machines generate data about themselves and communicate it with each other to make better decisions about how they operate. This advance promises major efficiency gains—think of a jet engine monitoring and injecting fuel precisely when it’s needed. It will also mean cost reductions through repair and maintenance that head off problems before they become major, among other advantages. But for this more-automatic world to take root, objects of all sorts need to be embedded with simple instruments—moisture detectors, accelerometers, and identification chips—that can sense and communicate their state to the broader world.
One of the major constraints of this potentially disruptive technology taking off is the power requirement of these sensors, which must be fed either by wires or batteries. But how does one install a wireless moisture detector into a roof and then periodically go in to change the batteries? How would a farmer gather up thousands of cheap sensors embedded in the soil that tell an irrigation system when to work after they’ve been spread over the land?
“Sensors have needed batteries up until now, which makes deploying them difficult because you have to maintain those batteries,” University of Washington computer science and engineering professor Shyam Gollakota tells Txchnologist. “We asked, ‘Can you generate power without batteries?’”
We live in a world hungry for electricity. New factories, new consumer electronics, new cars fueled by electrons. Engineers are racing to find better ways to build and power machines, pushing energy efficiency up incrementally as they go. Still, the U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts that global demand for electricity will grow 2.3 percent per year through 2035.
Busses, trains, automobiles and aircraft are either starting to move off of fossil fuels for direct electrical motive energy or have more systems that draw current. And a growing stock of buildings are being energized using intermittent power sources like wind and solar. All of this demand is highlighting a major obstacle—batteries need to get better at safely storing large amounts of energy to power our modern world.
Without a major innovation in energy storage, much of the promise of greening aviation, militaries, power generation and other industries will be stuck in the mire.
That’s the challenge Oak Ridge National Laboratory materials scientist Chengdu Liang and his team have been working on since 2007. Now they say they have designed and successfully tested a new battery that can store four times the energy as conventional lithium-ion versions.