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USC Scientists Develop Affordable Organic Battery

Scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) have developed a new water-based organic battery that is long-lasting and built from inexpensive, eco-friendly components.

The new battery uses no metals or toxic materials and is intended for use in power plants, where it can make the energy grid more resilient and efficient by creating a large-scale means to store energy for use as needed.

The batteries could pave the way for renewable energy sources to make up a greater share of the nation’s energy generation, USC says. Solar panels can only generate power when the sun’s shining, and wind turbines can only generate power when the wind blows. That inherent unreliability makes it difficult for power companies to rely on them to meet customer demand.

With batteries to store surplus energy and then distribute it as needed, that sporadic unreliability could cease to be such an issue. USC's new battery is based on a redox flow design — similar in design to a fuel cell, with two tanks of electroactive materials dissolved in water. The solutions are pumped into a cell containing a membrane between the two fluids with electrodes on either side, releasing energy.

The design has the advantage of decoupling power from energy, according to USC. The tanks of electroactive materials can be made as large as needed — increasing total amount of energy the system can store — or the central cell can be tweaked to release that energy faster or slower, altering the amount of power (energy released over time) that the system can generate.

The team’s breakthrough centered around the electroactive materials. While previous battery designs have used metals or toxic chemicals, the researchers wanted to find an organic compound that could be dissolved in water. Such a system would create a minimal impact on the environment, and would likely be cheap, they figured.

Through a combination of molecule design and trial-and-error, they found that certain naturally occurring quinones — oxidized organic compounds — fit the bill. Quinones are found in plants, fungi, bacteria and some animals, and are involved in photosynthesis and cellular respiration.

Currently, the quinones needed for the batteries are manufactured from naturally occurring hydrocarbons. In the future, the potential exists to derive them from carbon dioxide, Narayan said. The team has filed several patents in regards to design of the battery, and next plans to build a larger scale version.

USC isn’t the first to experiment with organic batteries. Japanese startup Power Japan Plus recently unveiled a new organic battery technology that generates twice as much energy as a lithium ion battery and charges 20 times faster. The company claims the technology could lead to cheaper long-range electric vehicles (EV) that can travel hundreds of miles on a charge and be charged in minutes rather than hours.

Another Japanese company, Sumitomo, also recently announced that it had developed and installed the world's first large-scale power storage system that utilizes used electric-vehicle (EV) batteries. Over the next three years, the system will measure the smoothing effect of energy output fluctuation from the nearby Hikari-no-mori solar farm, and will aim to establish a large-scale power storage technology by safely and effectively utilizing the huge quantities of discarded used EV batteries which will become available in the future.

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