New storage methods make renewable energy a more viable option
Even though renewable energy has been gaining traction in the world energy arena, progress has been slow. One of the main reasons for this is the one fatal flaw that renewable energy presents; it’s inconsistent. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine and, even when they are producing energy, the amount and duration are not consistent. This means that to provide base load energy requirements, sources such as natural gas, coal and nuclear need to be utilized; sources that are consistent, that are cheap and that can be increased or decreased to meet demand. Now, thanks to an unlikely gooey brown liquor, all that is about to change.
Brown gets down
Brown liquor, like yellow cake, is an innocuous-sounding misnomer which deals with very scientifically advanced products. Brown liquor is the by-product of the sulfite process which is used when producing wood pulp. This process involves soaking wood chips in sulfurous acid in pressure vessels to break down the fibers in the wood and extract the lignan. The resultant brown goo is a mixture of lignan and hemicellulose. Traditionally, the brown liquor is burned to generate steam in paper mills, but scientists at Linköping University in Sweden have found a much more interesting use for it.
Grzegorz Milczarek, a researcher at the University of Poznan in Poland teamed up with Olle Inganas, a professor of biomolecular and organic electronics at the University of Linköping in Sweden to discover that brown liquor makes a pretty impressive cathode. What do cathodes have to do with renewable energy? If renewable energy is going to be a constant and reliable source of energy, we must be able to store it. Batteries, the storage devices of choice, are too expensive to make this proposition viable on a large scale. The element most responsible for the high price of batteries is the cathodes which are traditionally made from rare and expensive materials such as cobalt.
Answers from nature
When faced with the problem of creating cheap batteries, Inganas turned to nature for the answers, researching how the photosynthetic process stores the sun’s energy. Brown liquor consists mostly of the broken cell walls (lignin) resulting from the pulping process. If these cell walls can be broken down even further to form quizones, or molecules that can transport electrons. Combine the quizones with a polymer known as polypyrrole, and voilà – you have the first low-cost, environmentally friendly battery.
Still in the prototype phase, the batteries need further development to make their way into the commercial market. Using batteries to store renewable energy is becoming a more attractive prospect as battery technology improves. Silicone batteries have already exponentially improved the viability of solar panel installations. Aside from increased battery capacity, silicone batteries also boast longer life spans, double the number of recharges of lead acid batteries and they are recyclable.
Alternatives to batteries
There are other options too; pumped storage hydroelectricity is a system whereby water is pumped from a low elevation reservoir to one at a higher elevation during times when electricity is cheap and plentiful. When demand outstrips supply, the water is released and flows through turbines which produce electricity.
Another storage method is to use excess energy to produce hydrogen from water and utilize it for energy creation in times when renewable energy production is low. Researchers at MIT also copied processes that occur during photosynthesis to split water molecules and create hydrogen. Professor Ernst Chain had this to say about the creation of hydrogen as a way of storing energy: “The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem.”
Each of these methods represents exiting developments that bring renewable energy into the next generation. With countries like Germany committing to 100% renewable energy by 2050, more is being invested into research and development. All of the answers have been supplied by Mother Nature herself, which is jolly decent of her, considering.
Although it is possible to gather energy from nature through wind and solar power systems, storing that energy has, until now, been problematic. If we are not able to utilize energy on days when the sun doesn’t shine, well then you can stick renewable energy where the sun… you get the idea.
Thus far, we have had to rely on the lead acid battery; a temperamental child of dubious merit. Lead acid batteries (like the ones that start your car) have high internal resistance, sensitivity to cold temperatures and a moderate self-discharge rate. Damaged lead batteries pose an environmental risk in the form of hazardous waste. To extend the life of lead acid batteries, you should only ever utilize about 10% of the battery’s potential. This means that the storage of massive amounts of energy requires an equally massive amount of space. So much space, in fact, that electricity companies couldn’t be bothered. They operate on the premise that they can predict the amount of electricity a population will need and aim to produce just that. Massive excesses of energy are discharged into the ground. I kid you not. Japan estimates that it can reduce its energy production by 1/3 if excess energy can be stored.
Lead acid batteries, utilized by off grid installations, did little to bolster use of these systems as they were not very efficient, unable to retain a charge for extended periods, and needed to be ventilated as they emit hydrogen gas. Welcome to the world of the Silicone battery. These puppies have radically increased battery capacities and are able to operate in extreme temperatures (-50°C to +70°C) and up to 6,000 m below sea level. Mind blowing? Then buckle up because there’s a lot more where that came from:
- Storage capacity is 1.75 times better than international standards.
- They have a high current recharge and they exceed international recharge acceptance capacity standards by 2.98 times.
- High current discharge at 30°C can be achieved in 8 seconds without damage to the battery.
- The batteries have a longer lifespan when working at normal conditions; 4 – 10 years as opposed to the 2 years of lead acid batteries.
- You can recharge the batteries over 400 times; double the number for lead acid batteries.
- Silicone batteries have no recharge memory.
- They do not emit acid during discharge nor do they produce electrolyte pollution.
- No landfill for silicone batteries – electrolytes can be utilized as fertilizer and the components are also recyclable.
- Silicone batteries not only solve the problems of home PV systems, but improve the performance of portable solar generator systems.
The Grandaddy of Batteries
More mind blowing, pant wetting options will avail themselves. Future, thy name is Vanadium. This amazing breakthrough in battery technology is made of (you guessed it) liquid Vanadium cells. They can store energy indefinitely and can be charged/discharged over 10,000 cycles. They can be charged and discharged simultaneously. They do not loose charge and have zero emissions. The Japanese are already employing these beauties to store the aforementioned excess energy and the Canadians have agreed that the technology is viable. This will leave our earth a little greener and ensure that you can play Xbox until the cows come home, with nary a glimmer of guilt.
When Regan removed the solar panels that Carter had installed on the White House roof, he sent a clear message – that solar had not come of age. If you are making a substantial investment in your home or business, you need to consider your options carefully and, while you are considering, we thought we might enlighten you by dispelling some urban legends about solar power systems so that you can make the right decision. This week at SolarLine we are busting myths and taking names. Be prepared to be educated…
Myth #1—Solar is too expensive
WRONG! It does take some initial investment, but most homeowners make back their initial investment within the first five years and can then look forward to a 15% or more return on their investment annually. If you live in Ontario, you can take advantage of the microFIT program currently on offer from the government and make a profit from your solar panels.
Solar installations have seen a dramatic decrease in costs over the last decade. This is thanks to a greater demand and more efficient technology. There are several firms who operate locally, making installation less costly. If you don’t have the capital, you can always get financing from your bank or through your solar installer.
Some people think that it is better to wait for the technology to advance and for solar to become cheaper. You can say that about every technology, but waiting will mean that you miss out on current government incentives. Look at the chart for a better idea of the return you will receive on your initial investment.
Myth #2—More power is used to manufacture and transport solar panels than the panel will produce in its lifetime
NOPE! A National Renewable Energy Laboratory report shows that the cost of producing a panel will be recovered in 1 – 4 years and, since most solar panels last for 30 years, they will make far more energy than they used. The idea that panels will one day clog landfills is also unlikely as 90% of material used to manufacture them is recyclable. A PV system that meets the needs of an average household prevents 1 ton of sulphur dioxide and about 12 000 lbs of nitrogen from polluting our atmosphere. Most pollutants produced during the manufacture of solar panels are recycled resulting in pollution that is minimal at best.
Myth# 3—Solar panels only work when the sun shines.
MISTAKE! Solar is not just a fair-weather friend; energy storage ensures that the lights stay on even when the sun isn’t shining. Advances in battery technology mean that power is guaranteed for much longer than you probably thought possible. Solar is reliable, and residents will not have to suffer through power cuts, especially in inclement weather. In fact, solar is so reliable that most highway signs, signals at railway crossings, lighthouses and navigational buoys are powered only by solar panels. Solar panels still produce energy on cloudy days – how much depends on cloud density. Most Ontario homeowners will still be connected to the grid. They supply the grid with their power at $0.80 kWh and pay a maximum of $0.09 kWh when using energy from it.
Myth #4—Solar doesn’t work in extreme temperatures
ERROR! Solar panels are actually better at producing power in cooler climes. Solar panels are very hardy and can withstand onslaughts from hail, wind, snow and sleet. Battery technology has improved remarkably and silicone batteries are able to withstand extreme temperatures from -50˚C to +70˚C. Germany is a great example of solar at work in colder climates – they have more than 2 million homes with solar panels! The cost of solar is also significantly less than costs associated with extending hydro poles to remote areas. A recent survey by the Solar Industries Association said 94% of people who owned solar water heaters considered them a wise investment.
How Sunlight Saves Disaster Victims
When natural disasters strike, the most desperate needs are for shelter, food and water. The disruption of electric services hamper relief efforts, expose victims to harsh environmental conditions and prevent hospitals and catering facilities from providing much-needed assistance to the population.
Water is the most urgent need and the team at MIT’s Space and Robotics Lab has come up with a prototype for a solar powered desalination unit. The device utilizes photovoltaic cells to power reverse osmosis pumps. These push water through a permeable membrane to remove impurities, salt and other minerals from sea water, and produce 80 gallons of fresh drinking water a day. The team plans to build a larger unit capable of increasing output to 1 000 liters a day. This unit can be used in disaster relief operations and also in areas which are remote enough to make provisions of water and electricity logistically challenging. A C-130 Cargo plane can transport up to a dozen of the larger units, providing water to 10 000 people.
In the past, diesel generators have been used to provide temporary electricity to disaster survivors, but these pose several problems. Generators are cumbersome and difficult to transport, especially to areas where roads, rail and bridges have been damaged. Generators require fossil fuel and produce large amounts of noise and air pollution. Improper use by inexperienced personnel has resulted in burns, fuel spills, fires, explosions and even asphyxiation. Transporting incendiary fuels during a disaster can be difficult at best.
Solar provides a good alternative. However, PV cells are fragile and break easily, making transport problematic. They also require experienced technicians to orient and assemble the panels, wiring and inverter while monitoring loads on the system. Enter stage left; the portable solar generator. These systems expedite the establishment of services to disaster stricken areas. Portable solar generators are self-contained and new developments in battery technology (deep cycle silicone batteries) ensure that they can operate for extended time periods, in extreme weather conditions, and unlike lead-acid batteries, they are environmentally friendly. If the terrain permits transportation, the trailer can charge while traveling. Alternatively, it can be airlifted to remote or cut-off areas. The trailer also provides room to transport supplies and provisions. Once it arrives on the scene, the portable solar generator is easy to set up and requires no expertise to run up to 3, 500 watt loads.