The Battery Support

The pervasive issue with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind is that their abundant availability trips on intermittency. Storing the excess energy from solar and wind requires large storage capacities at cost competitive levels. It is safe to state that there is currently no fully commercial battery technology capable of meeting the demanding performance requirements of the grid, namely the high power, long serving lifetime and low cost, despite the compelling need for such technology. This means that grid level storage if solved could revolutionize the energy transition of our generation.

In a 2012 TED talk, Prof. Donald Sadoway of MIT revealed how could the grid level battery look like in the future. He reckoned that his battery story “is more than an account of inventing technology, it is a blueprint of inventing inventors” as the development process tracked un-conventional wisdom full spectrum. The inovative technology made of a three-layered battery using liquid metal is claimed to empirically suited to shut-up the clamor around the solar and wind intermittency.

The humble beginnings of battery technology are attributed to A. Volta who pioneered the field of electro-chemistry and brought about a new technology – electroplating. The first battery was made of a stack of zinc and silver coins separated by cardboard soaked in brine. This was the starting point for designing a battery. Two electrodes – in this case metals of different compositions – and electrolyte – in this case salt dissolved in water. The science is that simple!

Prof. Sadoway found inspiration for the liquid metal battery in a modern aluminum smelter. In the cell house of an aluminum smelter shelters roll after roll of cells are aligned inside a long room. The inside of these rolls resemble Volta’s battery with some important differences. Volta’s battery works at room temperature, is fitted with solid electrodes and an electrolyte that is a solution of salt and water. The aluminum smelter operates at high temperature (a temperature high enough that the aluminum product is liquid). The electrolyte is not a solution of salt and water, but molten salt. This combination of liquid metal, molten salt and high temperature allows us to send high current through this thing.

In economic terms currently virgin metal from ores can be produced at a cost of less than €1/kg. This economic miracle of modern electro-metallurgy compelled the inventor’s motivation to take advantage and encapsulate the technology driven economy of scale for the liquid metal battery.

Prof. Sadoway succeeded in doing so by making both metals liquid and using molten salt for the electrolyte. He put low density liquid metal at the top, a high density liquid metal at the bottom and molten salt in between. The choice of metals was carried out to meet:

(i) the constraints of Earth abundance,

(ii) different opposite densities,

(iii) high mutual reactivity.

He felt the thrill of realization when coming upon the answer. Magnesium (Mg) for the top layer and Antimony (Sb) for the bottom layer.

Design Liquid Metal Battery   - AMBI -

Design Liquid Metal Battery
– AMBI –

To produce current Mg looses 2e to become Mg ion which migrates to the electrolyte where it accepts 2e from Sb and mixes with it to form an alloy. The electrons go to work in the real world powering devices. To charge the battery, the technology needs to be connected to an energy source which reverses the current and thus forces Mg to de-alloy and return to the upper electrode restoring the initial constitution of the battery. The current passing between the electrodes generates enough heat to keep it at temperature.

The theoretical model of this battery proved rather lengthy to implement and test in lab conditions. The technology initially set at 1Wh cell was perfected by operating more than 400 of them, refining their performance with the “plurality of chemistry” (currently is not just Mg-Sb). The model proved expandable at 20Wh cells and 200Wh with very encouraging results. The technology was proving itself to be robust and scalable.

Having a piloted idea seemed to be for Prof. Sadoway and his team insufficient to advance and commercialize the liquid battery technology. This prompted them to open a company (LMBC) and attract venture capital. The unit battery produced today at LMBC is .4m in diameter at a storage capacity of 1000 Wh (=1kWh). The next project on the horizon is a .9m diameter battery with a storage capacity of 4kWh.

Design of liquid metal battery scales - AMBRI -

Design of liquid metal battery scales
– AMBRI –

Further down the road, the company envisions that the 4kWh modules can be stacked in modules and aggregated in 40 foot shipping containers that can store up to 2MWh of energy. This represents the current average consumption of 200 American households.

This silent and emission free (when operational) technology can prove to be the support renewable energy technologies need to become competitive with fossil fuels. Besides the various environmental benefits that it offers, this technology addresses in a simple manner one of the most sensitive issues in the energy transition cost: this technology was designed to the market price without subsidy.

This ought to look sunny for the future of remote renewable power installations!

Framing the Russian Gas

EU Energy Consumption of Russian Natural Gas

EU Energy Consumption of Russian Natural Gas

The tense situation in Ukraine these days can be attributed to a series of causes as they are discussed at large on a variety of media outlets worldwide, but it is beyond the scope of this post to identify them and even further develop on them. This post aims to put into perspective what the Ukrainian crisis means for the EU from an energetic perspective, and question how the general state of the situation is going to unfold for EU-28 in the coming years.

Generally, in the context of the international resource dispute the EU-28 countries have started to change their long term energetic strategies by diversifying their energy mix and resource partners. For example, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster Germany and Sweden have started decommissioning their nuclear reactors; while Denmark is progressively pushing for an ever higher share of renewables in its energy mix.. France and UK are making a move towards gas being it conventional or unconventional. At large, European nations are moving towards less carbon intensive fuels.

The position of the EU countries in the Ukrainian crisis is delicately linked to the EU-Russian relations in a variety of aspects among which the geo-resource position of Russia as a coal, oil and gas exporter. This position is arguably of strategic importance for the EU importing countries especially in areas concerning gas. The dependence on Russian gas can be historically traced back to the end of World War II, but more recent events (the end of the Cold War) have tighten the strings and lead to bilateral cooperation. After the Cold War, European powers envisioned to unify the energy market in the same manner they’ve done with the Coal and Steel Community after the World War II, and thus further strengthen their position as a unified economic power in the international markets. By intending so, France made the first move and engaged Denmark and Germany alongside in a dialogue with Russia about building a gas pipeline extending from Russia all the way to France. This pipeline would feed-in the energetic needs of the transit countries and France, in the context of an increasing energy demand in the West European nations in late 1970s. At the time when this project was initiated it was rather ambitious and risky for Europe, which is why eventually it did not take off. In the coming years France moved on in building a nuclear fleet and Germany exploiting its coal resources, but mid 1990s brought back the need for cheap and reliable fossil resources in Europe. This reopened the EU-Russian dialogue for the Russian gas pipeline (Nord Stream) which was launched in 1997 and inaugurated in 2011. This pipeline accounts for about 20% of the European gas imports from Russia, a share which is prone to increase year by year (CIEP, 2013).

With the expansion of the Nord Stream pipeline in late 2013 the Ukraine transit gas pipeline is facing pressure. Even if absolute imports via Ukraine have changed little over the past years, the share of Russian gas imports in Europe via Ukraine has decreased (CIEP, 2013). This means that the Ukraine transit gas pipeline is feeding less gas into Europe via Romania and Bulgaria, than it used to; and this downward trend is expected to continue in the coming years mainly because of the gas hub associated with Nord Stream and the tense situation in Ukraine. A CIEP report (CIEP, 2013) on the issue argues that the Ukraine transit Russian gas pipeline renders vulnerable Eastern EU Member States such as Romania and Bulgaria which import 25% and respectively 100% of their gas needs via this route (Financial Times, 2014). These nations are faced with the challenge of ensuring gas security of supply because of their relative weak integration of transmission systems with the rest of Europe.

Crunching the numbers shows in fact how little the Russian gas incoming through Ukraine actually accounts to the overall EU-28 energy consumption. In 2013 the Russian gas imports transiting Ukraine represented about 15% of the total gas consumption of the EU-28 Member States, which in absolute terms represented about 80 Bcm/year (2013). Of the total volume of gas import incoming through Ukraine, only 53 Bcm/year are under security of supply ‘threat’, and of meager concern for EU-28. This volume represents a marginally 2.3% of the total energy consumption of the EU-28 (2013) and can be compensated for by the diversification of pipeline routes and the reliable storage levels put in place after the 2006 and 2009 shocks. At large, the Russian gas transiting Ukraine is a sensitive issue when there are no alternatives to address this supply, but alternatives could be set-up through joint efforts. Rough estimates argue that EU-28 can survive without Russian gas cca 300 days/year (2013), an estimate which has improved greatly since the first gas shock in 2006.

When factoring in the recent developments of the EU-28 energetic infrastructure one might argue that Europe is an energy shocks free region. With EU 2030 Climate and Energy Framework ambitions ahead, the European nations are making progressive steps towards achieving the 40% CO2 reductions (1990 base year). The means to achieve this is through peak shaving and switching to less carbon intensive fuels; the combination of both is LNG in NGCC. The existing 28 units (2012, incl. under construction units) are expected to be enforced by the additional 32 projected units. This impels for a Europe wide effort to unify the gas network for an increased energy security in the region.

In conclusion, the EU-28 has reasons to be concerned about the security of gas supply of its Eastern Member states in the context of the Ukrainian crisis but the bigger picture shows a unified strong European energetic market, which could easily tackle gas shortages via the storage capacities available and the diversified pipeline routes. As pointed out above, the dependence on the Russian gas transiting Ukraine, is marginal in absolute terms and the diversification of pipeline pursued in the last decade (Nord Stream, Blue Stream) softened the risk of transit related supply disruptions