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Liquid metal battery technology

Liquid metal battery technology

By Lori Valigra

MIT researchers said they have devised a new technology for a liquid metal battery that one day could be used as a more consistent supply of renewable energy on the electric grid.

The technology, described in a recent Journal of the American Chemical Society article, is under development at Liquid Metal Battery Corp., a Cambridge-based spinout formed in late 2010 to commercialize the technology under a license from MIT’s Technology Licensing Office. The company added more licensed patents from MIT in July 2011.

“Were moving toward engineering and manufacturing,” company CEO Phil Giudice told Mass High Tech. Giudice previously served as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Undersecretary of Energy and as Commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources, the state agency with primary responsibility for fulfilling Governor Deval Patrick’s vision for a clean energy future.

The company’s initial investment from Bill Gates and French energy concern Total SA is sufficient to take it through proof of concept, he said. Giudice would not disclose the investment amount, but did confirm it is under $10 million. The company is now talking to existing and new investors, including venture capitalists, to add funding as it tackles commercialization. It has 15 employees, which he said he hopes to expand to 50 by the end of 2013.

The research done at MIT was funded separately at $13 million from the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT, the Chesonis Family Foundation at MIT, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy), and Total.

The battery developed at MIT uses a mechanism to alloy and dealloy a battery, thus giving rise to voltage. Reversing the current reenergizes the battery, explained MIT professor Donald Sadoway, an author of the paper and a founder and chief scientist at Liquid Metal Battery. The high-temperature (1,292 °F) liquid metal battery has a negative electrode made of magnesium, a molten salt electrolyte, and a positive electrode of antimony that lay in three distinct layers because they are of different densities. The self-segregating nature of the battery components and the use of low-cost materials results in a promising technology for stationary energy storage applications, Sadoway and his colleagues wrote in the journal paper.

“This is a price-sensitive market, so we had to restrict ourselves to earth-abundant elements,” he said of the chosen metals. He said he hopes Liquid Metal Battery will be able to ship a product to a test site in two years.

The batteries are more than one foot in diameter and are built to be stacked up to 7 feet high. “It looks like a giant Alka-Seltzer tablet,” Sadoway said, adding that it is not clear yet whether the final product will be square or round.

Applications include using the differential between day and night electricity rates so companies using the battery can sell energy back to the grid during peak hours, and frequency regulation by electric companies on the grid as it experiences power fluctuations. “Our battery can respond in a second as the grid adds or dumps power,” Sadoway said.

The biggest drawback to clean, renewable energy sources currently is that they are intermittent. The wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the power they produce may not be available at the times it is needed. The battery may help smooth out the erratic supplies.

“Our batteries don’t fade,” Sadoway said, contrasting them to lithium ion batteries in laptops and cell phones that experience a fade in capacity as time goes on.

Others have researched similar liquid-battery systems, but Sadoway claims he and his team are the first to produce a practical, functional storage system with the approach. He attributes their success partly to the mix of expertise at MIT: “People in the battery industry don’t know anything about electrolytic smelting in molten salts. Most would think that high-temperature operation would be inefficient.”

Sadoway added, “If this technology succeeds, it could be a game-changer” for renewable energy.

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