Can Flow Batteries Replace Diesel Generators?

Diagram of a Vanadium Flow Battery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Diesel-addicted remote communities pin hopes on energy storage technology

In Sandy Lake, Ontario (population 2,650), the diesel fuel that powers this remote community a thousand miles northwest of Toronto costs around $9 a gallon. And even then, in its harsh northern climate, it provides electricity only some of the time.

“There’s always problems, there’s always power outages,” grumbles Harry Meekis, capital projects manager for the Sandy Lake First Nation. “Diesel is the only source of service that we have right now. Whether that’s affordable or not, that’s the only source we have,” he added.

Needless to say, they’re looking for alternatives, and a Canadian mining company thinks it has found one in a new battery using the little-known metal vanadium.

Without any feasible storage options, renewable sources like wind turbines and solar panels can generate power only when the wind blows and the sun shines. With storage, the power could be stored and distributed whenever needed, one of the reasons storage technology is being described as the “holy grail” in renewable energy.

Multiple battery technologies are being experimented with right now, including lithium and cadmium flow batteries, but Vancouver, British Columbia-based American Vanadium thinks vanadium flow batteries could have several distinct advantages, including durability and scalability.

The battery relies on an electrolyte compound made of a mixture of vanadium, a metal commonly used to harden steel, and sulfuric acid in a container that can continuously charge and discharge. Unlike most batteries, the electrolyte would not degrade over time because the anode and cathode aren’t made out of competing material. And, since it’s mostly made of water, it’s nontoxic and can’t explode, according to Ron MacDonald, executive chairman of American Vanadium.

Mining tomorrow, revenue today

American Vanadium has taken a two-pronged approach to bringing vanadium batteries to market. The company has bought the rights to a mountainside in central Nevada that’s home to a uniquely pure vanadium deposit. It hopes to create an open-pit mine to extract the metal in about 18 months, once it has finished the permitting process with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The site, known as Gibellini Hill, contains vanadium deposits at 99.995 percent purity, according to MacDonald.

“Which means it’s up to purity that we can put into battery market,” he said. “The deposit is unique. Metallurgists are saying there’s nothing else really with it.”

American Vanadium’s mine may not be operational for two years, but the company still hopes to start selling vanadium flow batteries soon. It has secured an offshore supply of electrolyte and recently signed a sales agreement with Austrian energy company Gildemeister for exclusive use of the company’s CellCube technology, a scalable energy storage system.

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Gildemeister is already selling CellCubes across Europe and Asia, with the battery storing energy in towns from Germany to Siberia to Saudi Arabia. This durability in a variety of climates was attractive to American Vanadium board members.

“Gildemeister has over 100 [CellCube] installations, and over 40 significant ones,” said MacDonald. “They’ve really built it well, and they’ve built it for these climates.”

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