Now this is a paradigm shift: instead of blowing a wad remolding our antiquated grid system, gearing it to become "smart," perhaps, instead, we should let individual homes become their own power stations, generating and storing their own power. That's the fantastic idea behind this new battery. Great article.
In a modest building on the west side of Salt Lake City, a team of specialists in advanced materials and electrochemistry has produced what could be the single most important breakthrough for clean, alternative energy since Socrates first noted solar heating 2,400 years ago.
The prize is the culmination of 10 years of research and testing -- a new generation of deep-storage battery that's small enough, and safe enough, to sit in your basement and power your home.
It promises to nudge the world to a paradigm shift as big as the switch from centralized mainframe computers in the 1980s to personal laptops. But this
time the mainframe is America's antiquated electrical grid; and the switch is to
personal power stations in millions of individual homes.
Taking a load off the grid through electricity production and storage at home would extend the life of the system and avoid the expenditure of tens, or even hundreds, of billions to make it "smart."
The battery breakthrough comes from a Salt Lake company called Ceramatec, the R&D arm of CoorsTek, a world leader in advanced materials and electrochemical devices. It promises to reduce dependence on the dinosaur by hooking up with the latest generation of personalized power plants that draw from the sun.
Solar energy has been around, of course, but it's been prohibitively expensive. Now the cost is tumbling, driven by new thin-film chemistry and manufacturing techniques. Leaders in the field include companies like Arizona-based First Solar, which can paint solar cells onto glass; and Konarka, an upstart that purchased a defunct Polaroid film factory in New Bedford, Mass., and now plans to print cells onto rolls of flexible plastic.
The convergence of these two key technologies -- solar power and deep-storage batteries -- has profound implications for oil-strapped America.
"These batteries switch the whole dialogue to renewables," said Daniel Nocera, a noted chemist and professor of energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who sits on Ceramatec's science advisory board. "They will turn us away from dumb technology, circa 1900 -- a 110-year-old approach -- and turn us forward."
Inside Ceramatec's wonder battery is a chunk of solid sodium metal mated to a sulphur compound by an extraordinary, paper-thin ceramic membrane. The embrane conducts ions -- electrically charged particles -- back and forth to generate a current. The company calculates that the battery will cram 20 to 40 kilowatt hours of energy into a package about the size of a refrigerator, and operate below 90 degrees C.
This may not startle you, but it should. It's amazing. The most energy-dense batteries available today are huge bottles of super-hot molten sodium, swirling around at 600 degrees or so. At that temperature the material is highly conductive of electricity but it's both toxic and corrosive. You wouldn't want your kids around one of these.
The essence of Ceramatec's breakthrough is that high energy density (a lot of juice) can be achieved safely at normal temperatures and with solid components, not hot liquid.
Ceramatec says its new generation of battery would deliver a continuous flow of 5 kilowatts of electricity over four hours, with 3,650 daily discharge/recharge cycles over 10 years. With the batteries expected to sell in the neighborhood of $2,000, that translates to less than 3 cents per kilowatt hour over the battery's life. Conventional power from the grid typically costs in the neighborhood of 8 cents per kilowatt hour.
Re-read that last paragraph and let the information really sink in. Five kilowatts over four hours -- how much is that? Imagine your trash compactor, food processor, vacuum cleaner, stereo, sewing machine, one surface unit of an electric range and thirty-three 60-watt light bulbs all running nonstop for four hours each day before the house battery runs out. That's a pretty exciting place to live.
And then you recharge. With a projected 3,650 discharge/recharge cycles -- one per day for a decade -- you leave the next-best battery in the dust. Deep-cycling lead/acid batteries like the ones used in RVs are only good for a few hundred cycles, so they're kaput in a year or so.
A small three-bedroom home in Provo might average, say, 18 kWh of electric consumption per day in the summer -- that's 1,000 watts for 18 hours. A much larger home, say five bedrooms in the Grandview area, might average 80 kWh,
according to Provo Power.;Either way, a supplement of 20 to 40 kWh per day is
substantial. If you could produce that much power in a day -- for example through solar cells on the roof -- your power bills would
Ceramatec's battery breakthrough now makes that possible.
Clyde Shepherd of Alpine is floored by the prospect. He recently installed the second of two windmills on his property that are each rated at 2.4 kilowatts continuous output. He's searching for a battery system that can capture and store some of that for later use when it's calm outside, but he hasn't found a good solution.
"This changes the whole scope of things and would have a major impact on what we're trying to do," Shepherd said. "Something that would provide 20 kilowatts would put us near 100 percent of what we would need to be completely independent. It would save literally thousands of dollars a year."
Shepherd is connected to the grid through Rocky Mountain Power, which charges a variable rate for power depending on demand during a given 24-hour period. With his windmill setup, Shepherd has what's called "net metering" -- an electric meter that spins both ways. He pays for electricity coming in, but gets a credit from Rocky Mountain for any excess power generated by his windmills that flows back onto the grid. Already, he's cut his power bills in half, and with good storage batteries he thinks he could reduce the bill to zero.
While Shepherd opted for windmills over solar at the time he was planning his alternative energy installation, he said he would reconsider that decision today as the bottom continues to fall out of the cost of solar cells.
"Batteries and PV are about to merge," said MIT's Nocera, using the shorthand for "photovoltaics" or solar power. "First Solar is now saying that it takes $1 a peak watt to manufacture, and another 80 cents for installation. So they're saying that you can get PV for under $2 a watt. That's a reduction of cost by a factor of four. Only a few years ago, it was $8. If CoorsTek and Ceramatec come up with a good battery, the market will develop quickly."
In 2000 Ashok Joshi, a native of India, took the helm at Ceramatec. His international reputation in ion technology and fuel cells kept the company among the first rank of innovators.
Joshi (he prefers A.J.) looked to the potent combination of sodium and sulphur for the basic components of a new battery. That was known chemistry. But while he wanted to achieve a high energy density offered by those elements, he also wanted to get rid of the extreme heat, corrosion and toxicity of liquid sodium batteries.
The key would be found in a paper-thin, yet strong and highly conductive, electrolyte material -- an advanced ceramic -- to serve as the barrier between the battery's sodium and sulphur. The thinner the barrier, the cooler the battery can operate. If you can get below the melting point of 98 C, sodium stays in its solid state, and you've got enough energy to run a house with safety.Charged particles of sodium and sulphur -- ions -- now scoot so effortlessly through the new ceramic wafer that the sodium doesn't even approach 98 C, let alone 350.
I like the closing quotes of the article. "What we're talking about is the ability to take the edges off," Hunter said. "We're at a tipping point for alternative energy."
In Salt Lake City, Grover Coors agrees: "This will be the largest industry of all time," he said. "But it's all about cost and reliability."