• Megan Stumpf

3 Alternatives to Lithium-Ion Batteries to Close the Renewable Energy Gap

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy makes up about 20% of electricity generation in the U.S. Yet, when the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow, the grid requires battery technology to temporarily store electricity until renewables can generate energy again. Where renewable technologies fall short, fossil fuels are generally employed as a backup; however, new developments in battery technology aim to decarbonize our grids without relying on expensive lithium-ion technology. Here are a few of the latest technologies that might finally allow us to say goodbye to natural gas and coal for good.



Iron Oxide

Rust is everywhere. Iron-air batteries, or iron oxide technology, involve extracting and storing electricity by “reversible rusting” at a fraction of the cost of lithium-ion batteries, even during extreme weather or periods of outages. Grid-scale storage should rely on safe, abundant material, an area where lithium-ion technology falls short. Form Energy, backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, announced their proprietary iron oxide battery will be ready for a major pilot with Minnesota’s Great River Energy utility, planned following the sizeable battery’s commission in 2023. When it comes to solving the intermittent supply problem of renewable energy sources, the results of this massive pilot may hold the answer to whether iron-air batteries are the necessary solution to rely on renewable energy entirely.

Manganese and Zinc

Elements used in lithium-ion batteries are expensive and scarce. Scientists are looking at alternative salts to replace the more costly components. One of the leading solutions is the use of manganese and zinc. Manganese and zinc are not only more abundant, but scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy suggest water may be suitable to replace the highly flammable liquid typically used in batteries, eliminating a significant safety risk. However, while water-based batteries are much safer, there is still some work to be done. Cycling performance continues to plague scientists when it comes to creating a scaleable, rechargeable battery. If scientists can harness the chemical and physical constraints currently limiting rechargeable alkaline battery technology, there may finally be a suitable commercial competitor to lithium-ion batteries.

Soil

Spanish startup Bioo founder, 24-year-old Pablo Vidarte, is turning a new leaf in battery power sourcing. Vidarte’s biological battery aims to harvest the activity of microorganisms in the soil (as electrons and protons) to produce a current that can power an entire house if scaled. The beauty of Bioo’s concept is energy would be produced 24/7, completely underground, without consideration of the weather. However, one major limitation is that the soil must remain moist. Despite this, to transition to a modern energy grid, a variety of renewable energies and batteries to support them are necessary. Biological batteries like Vidarte’s may be one possible bridge to closing the renewable energy gap with further development.


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