Solar and wind have a new best friend - Liquid Metal Batteries

As reliable energy sources, solar and wind once had a couple of similar problems – darkness all night and the proverbial calm before the storm, respectively. On the bright side, though, when these natural forces become our power sources, then the heat and the light are free - free as the wind blows. Today, solar and wind have a new best friend - Liquid Metal Batteries.

MIT prof creates Liquid Metal Battery

Liquid metal batteries can store that power in dirt-cheap materials and respond to the intermittent flows. They can provide grid-sized storage in small volumes. With liquid metal technology, various inputs and outputs have a reliable cushion to maintain perfect flow when the sun goes down and the wind stops blowing.

MIT professor Donald Sadoway, inventor of the Liquid Metal Battery (LMB), changed the name of his company to Ambri last year and landed encouraging private contracts along with significant capital infusion. Ambri is creating a clear path for many across a turbulent sea of clashes in the volatile energy world.

In 2005 Professor Sadoway, trained as a metallurgist, found the immense size of aluminum smelting as the solution to the problem of electric storage on a mass scale.

Aluminum smelters consume huge amounts of energy and work with material in liquid states when their capacity for electric storage is far greater and more durable than with solid storage.

LMB technology is an inverted version of smelting, aimed at controlling flow of electricity in varying temperatures of alloying metals, rather than controlling temperature of those metals by varying the flow of electricity, as in smelting.

“I looked at that and said, ‘Wow, that looks like half of a battery! And it’s big, it’s scalable, and it’s cheap.’”

LMBs can store and retrieve large amounts of electricity with excellent efficiency in a relatively small space. They store electrons by using two liquid metals and a liquid salt in between them. Ambri uses low-cost materials to create highly practical storage with portability, unlike the competition today.

Most (99%) of the grid-storage of electrical energy consists of pumping water up during periods of low-cost power and then releasing it to generate electricity during peak periods when electricity rates rise. These operations require site-specific geographic features but little money.

LMB technology creates new planning options without utility constraints.

Picture a neighborhood with 100 homes and small businesses with solar arrays on several community parking garages, carports, houses, malls, and open-air pavilions in a park. A few wind generators dot the hilltops and rim the parking lots. No power lines connect to the grid, just a toe-print shining on a hill.

The local LMB, roughly the size of a phone booth, handles the juice. In that phone booth awaits SuperStream, an ordinary mild-mannered molten alloy, ready at a moment’s notice to bust out as a stream of electrons to leap tall buildings in a single bound with more power than a locomotive.

Solar and wind catch the power; LMBs store it until you want it

Since the beginning, our Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) have been the primary supplier, and most consumers have been mostly just consuming. As solar and wind eat into the market, IOUs are moving towards ‘back-up’ position - paying for infra-structure with a shrinking pool of clients while facing a serious threat to their traditional business model in the changing times.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels improved significantly in efficiency as they dropped in price over 90% in the last 20 years. Some wind energy systems are simple projects with online manuals and videos (such as KISS) spawning numerous weekend wind warriors to wire up the breeze. Utilities are scrambling to slow the flow to solar and wind.

Under PURPA laws, IOUs offer clients a ‘tie-in’ and ‘reasonable rates’ for electricity-generation systems (solar, wind and bio-mass) to share the grid. LMBs change everything, as their storage capacity puts communities in charge of their own power from available resources stored in their LMB. No stinkin’ utility company needed.

Hawaii project to link LMBs with roof-top solar and wind - A visionary’s Win-Win

Hawaii has over-loaded its system during peak hours by accepting electricity onto the grid from just 5% of its homes - those with roof-top solar. Not only does this tiny fraction of homes and small businesses no longer require electricity during the sunny peak periods, but they also have some left-over juice to dump onto the grid. When it rains, it pours.

Hawaii has no fossil deposits. For decades, Hawaiians depended on oil imports. Along comes Ambri with a liquid metal battery to store some energy from the sun and wind as electrons, to handle the need without the expensive oil dependency, and to rely on free deliveries daily, to float on a ‘power cushion’ of LMBs.

As solar and wind have dropped in installed price, Hawaii’s only problem is limited grid capacity. Ambri’s contract with Hawaii will let the sun shine in while LMBs store power from abundant sun and breeze in liquid metal batteries. They may liberate our island state from the grip of oil and reduce the highest rates in the US.

Office of Naval Research contracts for LMBs to manage power at Joint Base Cape Cod

In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Ambri also landed a contract with the Office of Naval Research for energy storage in conjunction with Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.  By 2015, a liquid metal battery the size of a shipping container will manage multiple inputs from Cape Cod’s onsite solar and wind generation facilities while supplying numerous fluctuating outputs on a massive scale, powering parts of military base operations with uninterrupted service. 

Multi-national corporations, governments and utilities are watching the results of these installations. As Ambri has leveraged startup money for such projects, they are also building larger manufacturing facilities to handle the demand. They have funding from Bill Gates, venture capitalist Khosla and French energy giant Total.

Durable and reliable, these efficient and long-lasting storage units of electrical power are now available in the break-through technology for storing electrons in dirt-cheap elements available universally – Liquid Metal Batteries.

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Tags: Energy, Solar, Wind, storage

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Comment by Joseph Lamy on February 3, 2014 at 7:18pm

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