John Katsoudas [ 21 DEC 2016 | Energy Security ] We all know that burning gasoline for transportation contributes significantly to an oncoming global calamity – climate change.
We also know that switching to electric vehicles – or EVs – can improve the situation.
I bet all of you, like me, care about the environment and most of you, like me, don’t own an electric vehicle.
I’m pretty confident about this because I know that electric vehicles make up less than a percent of all the automobiles on the road today.
So, unless there is a small fraction of a person out in the audience who owns an electric vehicle, I think this is a pretty safe assumption.
I have my reasons why I don’t own an electric vehicle.
I live in the city. I don’t have a garage, so I can’t charge at home. I don’t like waiting longer than three minutes at a gas station to refuel. I like knowing I can go on long trips. I don’t want to deal with the logistics of charging stations.
Owning an electric vehicle right now seems as if I would be paying substantially more for significantly less.
If some of my reasons are also some of your reasons why you don’t have an electric vehicle – it doesn’t bode well for the environment.
Because each one of those is a separate issue – that has yet to be addressed.
I’ve been a research scientist for over 13 years and I have the luxury of imagining possible solutions long before most even get to consider them.
In fact, every moment of the day I think of solutions.
It’s what I do.
But every now and then, I get to experience the completely unexpected – and it is extremely refreshing.
Seven years ago, I was having a series of conceptual conversations with a colleague of mine about her work in heat transfer nanofluids.
To explain: a nano fluid is a fluid that has billions and billions of nanoparticles mixed into it.
These tiny particles can imbue their material properties, into the fluid, and the fluid in turn can begin to exhibit the material behavior of the salad.
My colleague was pumping her fluid across a hot surface and the fluid would absorb the heat from this hot surface.
By measuring how the fluid would cool down, she could determine the effect the nanoparticles were having on the thermal efficiency of the fluid.
She found, in some cases, that by adding the nanoparticles to her fluid she could improve its thermal efficiency by 80% – which is a lot, when you consider that industry typically fights for only 5% incremental improvements in a product’s performance.
From her results a question arose:
If the Nano fluid that she was testing was being pumped, in her apparatus, from a point A to a point B – and we know that heat is actually just a form of thermal energy – were there other forms of energy that could also be transported in this fashion?
How about electrical energy storage and transport?
Could that be transported from point A to point B in a nano fluid – using nanoparticles made from rechargeable battery materials?
So we formed a research group to investigate.
Battery materials – regardless if they make up the positive side or the negative side –experience a morphological change, when they’re charged, and they’re discharged.
When you go home, and you plug a battery into your charger, an electron is actually physically driven into the material at the atomic level.
And the atoms, in the material, need to separate a little bit. They need to adjust to accommodate this electron.
One way that we can see this happening is by using x-rays – sort of like x-raying your luggage at the airport to see the contents inside.
But in our case, we needed to use a particle accelerator to generate the x-rays and use very specialized techniques to see what was happening at the atomic level.
So we wrote a series of experimental proposals to use –one of the largest x-ray sources in the world – utilizing this exact type of experiment.
We began pumping our nano fluid, with these rechargeable battery particles in it, to see if, in fact, we could charge and discharge those particles.
And we could!
And using the x-rays we were able to probe the process in real-time – probe the system as it occurred.
Well this was a very exciting result – because previously I spoke of transporting thermal energy from point A to point B – but here we were transporting electrical energy storage and transport in a fluid from point A to point B.
Normally when you’re transporting electrical energy, the way we know it, you do it in a wire.
You don’t do it in a fluid.
There’s something subtly unique about this concept.
And then the unexpected happened.
With every experiment to follow, we actively sought for areas for further development, until the potential of liquid energy storage came into focus for us.
I want everyone here to consider their cell phones – that inside are solid battery material, solid constructs, and they absorb energy and they extract energy – thousands of times over and over and over – cycling back and forth back and forth, throughout their entire useful life.
Batteries store electrical energy. You all know this. There is nothing new there.
But there are other types of battery – outside of that familiar format.
Here – this is the battery too.
Even though we identify with those solid battery constructs that are in your cell phones, this is a bunch of lemons powering a clock.
You know when life serves you lemons you make a battery, right?
There is another type of battery and I’m just going to describe it for you. It’s called a flow battery.
A flow battery is a type of battery that actually has these massive tree trunk size tanks – and one tank has got a positive fluid in it and the other tank has a negative fluid in it.
And there’s a reaction chamber that basically sits between them.
Depending on the way in which you flow it across, this reaction chamber, will determine whether it’s going to store electrical energy or it’s going to give up electrical energy.
It’s utilized to minimize brownout scenarios.
When everyone comes home in hot summer months, everyone turns on their air-conditioner. This levelizes that. Because, if you don’t use batteries in this fashion, you will waste a lot of energy.
Because you’ll get these brownout scenarios and something has to compensate for it.
One reason you all aren’t walking around with lemons in your pockets – connected to your cell phones , or you’re putting stationary storage flow batteries on the back of trailers hitched to your EVs – is they actually don’t store a lot of energy.
It is only those batteries that you’re familiar with, that are in your cell phones, that have the energy storage, and the energy density, to actually push an electric vehicle 240 miles per charge.
So the question actually is:
Can a format change, from those solid battery materials into a liquid one, do better?
If so, what could be accomplished?
I want to talk to you a little bit about gasoline.
Gasoline, functionally, is an amazing thing.
It is a high energy density liquid fuel transportable from point A to point B via flow and fuel pumps.
It doesn’t freeze.
It’s extremely high energy dense and it’s volatile.
All you need is a spark to get out its energy.
And it can store a lot of energy, in those chemical bonds.
It’s one of those materials that, if nature did not supply gasoline for us, we would want to invent something this good.
And just as electrical energy is transported –from the generators, to the grid, to the transformers, to the homes, to the outlets – gasoline is transported from oil rigs, refineries, pipelines, tanker cars, the gas station and then to your pump.
The convenience of gasoline cannot be overstated.
It is pumpable.
It is flowable.
For these reasons it occupies a huge space in the US energy portfolio.
You’ll notice, in the red section, 71% of petroleum goes towards transportation – specifically for those reasons I previously spoke of.
It’s hard to imagine anything other than the 3-minute refueling.
It’s hard to imagine anything other than gasoline’s reliability, other than gasoline’s relatively low cost.
There is just one glaring modern 21st century issue and that is that burning gasoline for transportation is responsible for 30% of all C02 production.
And C02 causes climate change.
Someone could say, “hey just electrify transportation, you don’t have to worry about burning petroleum any more.”
There’s a few points I want to make here:
The first is this: if we were to electrify transportation, you can see, in the blue section, that represents electricity generation.
So most of the red would become blue and what that means is you would be doubling up on the necessity to build more electricity generation.
That means we would have to double up on the amount of coal plants that we presently use to generate the electricity.
And burning coal produces 137 percent more C02 than burning gasoline.
So that doesn’t help that much.
Then there’s the question of grid capacity.
If everyone came home on a hot summer day, turned on their air-conditioner, opened the refrigerator, popped a beer, turned on their TV, turned on the lights and plugged their automobile – their electric vehicle – in for recharging, you would have transformers that would be shutting down everywhere.
There is a proposed solution to this issue and it goes something like this:
If the electric vehicles are capable of talking to the meters at the home – and the meters at the home are capable of talking to the transformers, and the transformers can talk to the grid – then the grid can tell the automobile when it’s most convenient for it to charge the automobile.
You would no longer be free to just come home and plug your electric vehicle in to charge whenever it was convenient for you.
This means there would need to be more infrastructure leading to more cost.
The other point I want to make is:
Presently it takes 60 times longer to fully recharge an electric vehicle than it does the three minutes to refuel it right now.
That amount of time would be preclusive to meet the local demand in urban areas.
The aggregate footprint to do that, in an urban area, would be massive.
These are some of the issues related to simply electrifying transportation.
It faces headwinds from infrastructure issues, consumer issues and strategy issues .
However, at approximately 8 percent – so 8 out of every 100 people – if they owned electric vehicles, a business argument could be made to produce them.
And companies would make a profit producing them.
In order to combat global climate change you need closer to 50% EV penetration. 50 out of every 100 people need to be driving an electric vehicle.
Generation sources need to be created and invented that don’t burn fossil fuels and a way to transport energy that won’t crash the grid.
And urban areas can’t be precluded because it takes so much longer to charge.
Petroleum companies presently own the transportation market and they’re not simply going to give it up to the electric utilities.
They’re going to fight tooth and nail to keep their markets.
And utility companies presently aren’t positioned to take over anyway.
But climate change, it doesn’t care about any of this.
It doesn’t care about strategy issues.
It doesn’t care about infrastructure issues.
It’s just going to keep accelerating and keep going forward until . . .
. . . until the end.
Now imagine a different possibility– where batteries are made of high energy density, rechargeable, fluids.
And large tanks can sit at solar farms, and wind farms.
And the fluids could be charged on-site and first transported by tanker car, railcar, and depots, to refilling stations – where one can imagine electric vehicles simply pump in fresh charged liquid and pump out the discharged liquid to be recharged at the station or wherever and whenever is most convenient for the infrastructure that we already have.
Does this solve many of those issues?
Does a format change, from a solid into a liquid, address this issue?
Does this scenario give oil companies the impetus to pivot because they can hold on to their markets?
They have the technological advantage already of transporting liquid fuel.
When we began this work, this was not what we were going after.
We were simply following the breadcrumbs – studying the basic nature of this new liquid energy format.
Only after we proved the concepts, in our early experiments, did we begin to understand the potential of what liquid energy storage actually is.
Can we make a high energy density battery, a composite liquid?
Have the same low operational temperatures?
Can we make it flow with pumps and transport it in that fashion?
And we found the technology and we’ve shown it in its all its pieces.
A Nano Electro Fuel flow battery is a stable nanoparticle suspension of the same high energy density material that you are already familiar with.
That are already in those cellphones.
They’re already in mass production.
They’re already utilized around the world.
They’re already used to combat global climate change.
A NEF battery is a type of battery that attempts to merge the solid formats into the flow battery formats –into one singular functional form.
This is how we see it.
The transportation of electrical energy – without a grid, in a fluid – not only addresses the core issues, but it fundamentally occupies the same space as gasoline.
No longer do grid structures need to be built to the solar farms in the wind farms.
Instead of oil being pumped from the ground and into pipelines, wind farms could be pumping energy into pipelines.
Instead of pumping gasoline into the internal combustion engine, pumps could be pumping electrified fluid.
Energy storage decouples demand from generation and NEF type of technologies. It decouples the energy transport from the grid.
None of this potential was sought.
None of this overarching vision was predetermined.
A simple change of format from those high energy density materials, that you are all familiar with, into just a liquid nano fluid – opened up an entire area of application.
When we started this work, we simply did it because we were curious.
Now we’re going to build it.
John is CEO and co-founder of Influit Energy and a research scientist with the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) for over 13 years. He has extensive experience in designing complex scientific equipment for the characterization of energy-related materials using synchrotron x-rays.
Most recently John was Co- Principle Investigator (Co-PI) on a $3.5 million ARPA-e funded research project to engineer a flow battery to meet transportation needs.