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MIT’s “air-breathing” battery can store electricity for months inexpensively

MIT researchers have developed an “air-breathing” battery that could store electricity for very long durations for about one-fifth the cost of current technologies, with minimal location restraints and zero emissions. The battery could be used to make sporadic renewable power a more reliable source of electricity for the grid.

For its anode, the rechargeable flow battery uses cheap, abundant sulphur dissolved in water. An aerated liquid salt solution in the cathode continuously takes in and releases oxygen that balances charge as ions shuttle between the electrodes. Oxygen flowing into the cathode causes the anode to discharge electrons to an external circuit. Oxygen flowing out sends electrons back to the anode, recharging the battery.

“This battery literally inhales and exhales air, but it doesn’t exhale carbon dioxide, like humans — it exhales oxygen,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT and co-author of a paper describing the battery.

The battery’s total chemical cost — the combined price of the cathode, anode, and electrolyte materials — is about 1/30th the cost of competing batteries, such as lithium-ion batteries. Scaled-up systems could be used to store electricity from wind or solar power, for multiple days to entire seasons, for about $20 to $30 per kilowatt hour.

The prototype is currently about the size of a coffee cup. But flow batteries are highly scalable, Chiang says, and cells can be combined into larger systems.

As the battery can discharge over months, the best use may be for storing electricity from notoriously unpredictable wind and solar power sources. “The intermittency for solar is daily, but for wind its longer-scale intermittency and not so predictable. When it’s not so predictable you need more reserve — the capability to discharge a battery over a longer period of time — because you don’t know when the wind is going to come back next,” Chiang says. Seasonal storage is important too, he adds, especially with increasing distance north of the equator, where the amount of sunlight varies more widely from summer to winter.

Chiang says this could be the first technology to compete, in cost and energy density, with pumped hydroelectric storage systems, which provide most of the energy storage for renewable around the world but are very restricted by location.

“The energy density of a flow battery like this is more than 500 times higher than pumped hydroelectric storage. It’s also so much more compact, so that you can imagine putting it anywhere you have renewable generation,” Chiang says.

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