Is the Secret to Cheap Energy Storage Hiding in Harlem?

Crystallised electrolyte of a leaked alkaline cell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The material in disposable batteries may hold the secret to making an inexpensive storage system that can feed the electrical grid

Ensconced in a former warehouse in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood, an energy start-up has equipment not typically associated with battery manufacture—restaurant-grade mixers, pasta-makers and even rolling pins. This kitchen equipment makes ingredients that the company hopes will turn the familiar alkaline battery into a cheap way to store the electricity from massive wind farms.

Like many other battery start-ups, Urban Electric Power has survived so far on city and state business development grants for its Harlem location as well as research funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA–E). But what also distinguishes Urban Electric from their peers (aside from the restaurant gear) became obvious during a recent tour of the new facility with Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz—namely, the lack of glove boxes that fill other experimental battery shops. “That’s because the materials we work with are so safe,” says Valerio De Angelis, interim CEO of start-up battery maker Urban Electric Power.

Such boxes, with long, thick gloves sticking out waiting for scientific hands to fill them, protect researchers from the caustic, volatile or otherwise dangerous chemicals they work with in the quest for a cheap and stable battery. But at Urban Electric, the young researchers work with relatively stable, well-known and old chemistry: zinc paired with manganese dioxide. Could the same chemistry employed in disposable batteries clear the path for even larger scale deployment of renewable resources such as wind and solar power?

View a slide show of the makings of these alkaline batteries.

The money from ARPA–E came in pursuit of exactly that old energy holy grail: grid-scale storage of electricity. Such storage could be the key to enabling more renewable sources of electricity generation—providing power when the sun is not shining or the wind not blowing—or simply making the best use of existing resources, such as sucking up power that would otherwise be dumped from always-on nuclear reactors. “Storage gives you massive flexibility,” Moniz notes, adding that it can help improve reliability and resilience as well by providing backup power. “The issue has been the cost.”

So ARPA–E set a goal for members of its Grid-Scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatchable Storage, or GRIDS program, like Urban Electric Power: a big battery for less than $100 per kilowatt-hour of storage. “The only thing we could think of to do that is a massive rechargeable Duracell,” says chemical engineer Sanjoy Banerjee, founder of Urban Electric and director of The Energy Institute at City College of New York. Disposable batteries have employed zinc and manganese for decades, and given that all the components have been in use for that span in so-called alkaline batteries, the cost of everything from the electrodes to the separators is very cheap, much cheaper than lithium ion or any other kind of battery. “It’s probably the lowest cost battery that can be put together.”

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