An opinion blog by MEC as our contribution to the 2017 Engage Global Social Media Competition: Technology for a Sustainable Future.
We often hear climate deniers and those opposed to renewable energy state “the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine at night” as a kind of dismissive mantra on clean energy technology. The statement is of course true! So, what to do. We can go the way of gas peaker plants to pick up the slack quickly when renewables are not delivering sufficient energy to cope with demand. There is no doubt that in many places this solution would reduce fossil fuel use enormously in a mostly renewable based system. We are beginning to see an even cleaner way to maintain supply by the use of battery storage.
For some perspective and background it’s worth noting that many of today’s common battery technologies are over 100 years old such as, lead acid, zinc carbon, nickel cadmium, nickel iron. The most energy dense and light weight commercial batteries in use today are lithium batteries (in a variety of flavours). We see these in smart devices, in electric vehicles (EV) and more recently in home and commercial storage formats. Early work on Lithium based batteries was first experimented with around 1912 (by G.N. Lewis).
The big breakthrough in lithium batteries was a result of American chemist John Goodenough’s research in the 1980’s. This revolutionised the battery industry and enabled the applications for this technology which are so prevalent today.
Despite the leap in energy density afforded by lithium batteries they are still relatively heavy and expensive with a lifespan of around 8-12 years. Improvements with tweaks to the electrolyte and electrodes are incremental and may plateau over the next few years. Although the cost of these batteries has decreased rapidly over the last decade, a trend that will continue, they are still a major cost component of EVs and battery storage systems. Pricing will be an issue for battery storage for some years yet.
Breakthroughs in energy storage will result in a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel use over the next decade. There are promising signs this will happen.
Despite its drawbacks certain lithium technologies greatly increase energy density. Lithium air batteries have much greater energy density than current lithium ion batteries. We could image a car such as the new GM Bolt having a multifold increase in its current range of 238 miles per charge for the same size battery pack. With a thousand miles of range the current perceived drawbacks of range anxiety and price could be addressed simultaneously by lithium air tech. There are some serious technological barriers to overcome with this technology but a milestone breakthrough in 2016 by researchers at MIT may see prototypes within a year! Lithium sulphur batteries have also demonstrated a potential of at least doubling of energy density for less cost and research continues in this field. Other promising battery research indicates that solid state lithium batteries will be commercialised over the next 5 years (or sooner) which will double energy density and reduce production costs by as much as a factor of 5.
On the horizon are even more enticing technologies that will revolutionise and hasten the adoption of EVs and home/grid energy storage systems. Global research in supercapacitor & ultracapacitor technologies will enhance battery storage and could ultimately replace current battery technology. Graphene is a relatively new “wonder material” with quite unusual attributes that will continue to improve battery technology. In combination with ultracapacitors it offers much promise.
With current advances in material science and our abilities to monitor battery behaviour at the atomic level there will be significant progress within the decade. There may be a single technological breakthrough or a series of incremental breakthroughs that reduce costs significantly. The transition to cheap storage will be driven more by economics than environmental concerns in the same fashion that wind and solar are now replacing fossil fuel generation purely on cost. The commercialisation of cheap and improved energy storage technology will hasten the demise of the fossil fuel industry in a way no other technological breakthrough has the potential for.