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Where to put all the energy

by Greg St. Martin

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity con­vened experts from industry, gov­ern­ment, and acad­emia last week to dis­cuss advance­ments in next-​​generation energy storage and bat­tery tech­nolo­gies as well as their com­mer­cial via­bility, which could have a major impact in addressing global chal­lenges in areas such as energy con­sump­tion, mate­rials short­ages, and cli­mate change.

The second-​​annual Multi-​​Scale Renew­able Energy Storage Con­fer­ence was held last week in the Raytheon Amphithe­ater. It was orga­nized by the North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Center for Renew­able Energy Tech­nology, or NUCRET, and was spon­sored by the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the Depart­ment of Chem­istry and Chem­ical Biology.

Researchers at NUCRET, directed by pro­fessor of materials/​physical chem­istry San­jeev Muk­erjee, are pur­suing a range of inno­v­a­tive energy research projects in the areas of trans­porta­tion, alter­na­tive fuels, and energy storage, and advanced mate­rials and processes for energy con­ver­sion. One, led by Muk­erjee, involves devel­oping cleaner, more effi­cient fuel cells to replace cars’ internal com­bus­tion engines. To over­come the cost bar­rier, they’re replacing plat­inum with mate­rials like iron and cobalt to create less expen­sive catalysts.

In opening remarks, J. Murray Gibson, founding dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence, cited his recent trip to his native Scot­land to illus­trate how the inter­mit­tent nature of renew­able energy sources remains a major chal­lenge. He said wind and rain from Hur­ri­cane Bertha dom­i­nated the weather there, noting that these con­di­tions were per­fect for hydro­elec­tric power and wind power but mis­er­able for cap­turing solar power, since the sun was hardly seen.

“You all under­stand how impor­tant storage is going to be if we’re going to create a sus­tain­able world that relies on renew­able energy,” Gibson said.

Throughout the MRES 2014 con­fer­ence, researchers and industry leaders dis­cussed inno­v­a­tive approaches in the works across a range of appli­ca­tions, from smart grids to mil­i­tary back­packs to elec­tric car bat­teries. Sev­eral pre­sen­ters focused on advance­ments with redox flow bat­teries, one class of elec­tro­chem­ical energy storage devices. Other pre­sen­ta­tions fea­tured sodium-​​based bat­tery tech­nolo­gies, strate­gies to better har­ness solar and wind energy, and hydrogen-​​based solu­tions for energy storage in smart grids.

The event aligned with Northeastern’s focus on pur­suing use-​​inspired, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research focused on solving global chal­lenges, par­tic­u­larly in the areas of health, secu­rity, and sustainability.

On the first day of the con­fer­ence, Imre Gyuk, pro­gram man­ager in energy storage for the Depart­ment of Energy, deliv­ered a keynote address on progress in U.S. grid energy storage. He high­lighted sev­eral fed­eral stimulus-​​funded energy projects nation­wide, including one that broke ground this month in Ver­mont that would gen­erate and store solar energy to power an emer­gency shelter at Rut­land High School during a storm.

He stressed the impor­tance of devel­oping energy storage for emer­gency pre­pared­ness, noting that invest­ments in pro­tec­tion mea­sures can save four times that invest­ment in poten­tial post-​​storm repairs. As he put it, “It’s going to happen, so you might as well fix your roof before the storm, not after it.”

For its part, NUCRET’s inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of fac­ulty, stu­dents, and staff research ways to develop renew­able energy, work that has been funded by the Depart­ment of Energy, Depart­ment of Defense, the U.S. Army, among many other sources. K.M. Abraham, a research pro­fessor at NUCRET, has been working on lithium bat­tery tech­nology for the better part of 30 years, with a par­tic­ular focus on his pio­neering work on recharge­able lithium-​​ion and lithium-​​air batteries.

At the con­fer­ence, Abraham noted that the wide­spread use of lithium-​​ion bat­teries in con­sumer prod­ucts has led to the rapid increase in their energy and power den­si­ties in recent years. He added that storage is the “next fron­tier” for lithium-​​ion but cau­tioned that “cost remains a pri­mary deter­rent to their wide­spread use in large-​​format appli­ca­tions, such as elec­tric power grids.”

Though work on lithium-​​air bat­tery tech­nology has ramped up in recent years, it remains in its infancy, Abraham said. Recently, Volk­swagen and Toyota have report­edly been exploring the tech­nology for their next-​​generation energy-​​efficient vehicles.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on August 26, 2014.

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