Thursday, January 22, 2015

Energy Storage for the Grid and Cost Based Discovery

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Professor Donald Sadoway (MIT) is speaking on"Innovation in Stationary Electricity Storage". He started by saying the subtext for his talk was "Cost Based Discovery": researches have to consider the implementation cost of what they are investigation, they can't just pass it on to industry and hope it will be affordable. Also Professor Sadoway criticized his colleagues at MIT who are producing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which he said were not helping with basic education in developing nations, as the typical MOOC student is a western university graduate (and only 5% finish the courses anyway). Professor Sadoway also pointed out that an online course is of no use in parts of Africa where there is no electricity supply. This was the segue into the topic of low cost high capacity batteries to make renewable energy sources feasable for baseload.

Professor Sadoway described his investigation of possible battery chemical processes, looking at what are low cost materials which would be inexpensive to process. You can read some of his research work in Bradwell, Kim, Sirk, & Sadoway (2012) and Kim et al. (2012). But the presentation was more about how to research to produce a a cost effective result. This is a message which Australian university researchers need to list to: they can be academically rigorous and also produce something of use to the community (and will make money).

Professor Sadoway claimed 70% efficiency for a liquid metal battery, which is comparable to pumped hydroelectric storage (the only form of electricity storage in common use). He argued that while a tub of hot liquid metal sounds dangerous he pointed out that a leak in the containment vessel will be self sealing (as the metal cools, it hardens).

One possible early application Professor Sadoway mentioned for liquid metal batteries was powering forward military bases. Solar panels are not sufficient on their own, and while you can package them with diesel generators, but fuel transport is still an issue. Professor Sadoway argued that a liquid metal battery could be easily transported, as it is solid when cold and would be resistant to small arms fire (and also silent).

While currently being shipping container sized and intended for stationary use, the liquid metal batteries already have an energy density similar to lead acid batteries and improving. So I asked Professor Sadoway is his batteries would work in a submarine. He said this had been discussed with the Pentagon and there were no particular problems. This could be of interest to Australia, which is considering lithium iron battery submarines with Japanese technology for the Collins class submarine replacement in Project SEA 1000.

Professor Sadoway then mentioned that he teaches first year chemistry. He mentioned the lectures are videoed and that Bill Gates watched and came to visit. This indicates that understand what MOOCs are really for: self promotion. ;-)


Bradwell, D. J., Kim, H., Sirk, A. H., & Sadoway, D. R. (2012). Magnesium–Antimony Liquid Metal Battery for Stationary Energy Storage. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 134(4), 1895-1897.
Kim, H., Boysen, D. A., Newhouse, J. M., Spatocco, B. L., Chung, B., Burke, P. J., ... & Sadoway, D. R. (2012). Liquid metal batteries: Past, present, and future. Chemical reviews, 113(3), 2075-2099.

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