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USA: Grid-Scale Metal Liquid Batteries Could Revolutionize Renewable Energy Use

Most Exciting Development I’ve Seen in Ages!

Almost every week, I see some R&D project or lab prototype that makes me go “ooh, that’s interesting!”. But it’s rather rare that I encounter something that makes me rethink my whole vision of the future! It happened to me when I saw the video below, which is a presentation by a MIT professor on how he designed grid-scale liquid metal batteries. I won’t try to describe Professor Sadoway’s design in detail because he does it much better than I could in the must-see TED video below, but I want to put this technology into context and talk about why it got me so excited, and how it truly can revolutionize the important energy sector, and thus be very very good for our fragile biosphere.

But the first thing to note is that Professor Sadoway’s grid-scale batteries were designed so cleverly! From the ground up, the goal was to make them dirt-cheap (literally!) and very safe and reliable, which is why they can operate comfortably at high temperatures (something that needs to be constantly cooled has more chances of failing if something unexpected happens). He didn’t just try to stretch an existing design into something bigger, he created them to be grid-scale from the ground up. It’s truly the kind of genius work that should be backed by massive resources, either from venture capitalists or the Department of Energy or whatever. The faster we can bring these to market, the faster we can ramp up intermittent renewable sources of energy way past the point at which they would start to screw up our current grid infrastructure. And we need all the carbon-free energy we can get, especially with China and India rapidly ramping up their coal usage.

TED/Screen capture

Problems & Solutions

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar have great advantages over other sources; once operating, they don’t produce greenhouse gases or air pollution, they have no fuel costs, and they can more easily be scaled up or down to either take full advantage of a very sunny spot in a desert or very windy site offshore, or fit on a rooftop in a city.
But they also have a big disadvantage, which is that we can’t truly control when they produce energy. Once the sun is shinning or wind blowing, we can tweak them to maximize output, and we can forecast wind and sun with pretty good accuracy, but despite all that, it remains that sometimes there’s just no sun or wind.


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