Tuesday 25th October 2016                 Change text size:

Renewable energy (*batteries not included)

Photo: e_chaya via Flickr

MIT’s liquid metal battery technology could hold the key to a sustainably powered future—grid-level energy storage.

How can we rely on power sources that come and go at the drop of Mr Sun’s hat?

The intermittent nature of some renewable energy forms is a hot topic of debate and the backbone to many objections from supporters of dirty fossil fuels and the anti-wind farm brigade (beyond disclosure of an outmoded aesthetic sense, of course).

Energy storage, on a massive scale, is one solution to the problem. If renewable energy sources can efficiently harnessed and then coupled with cost-effective power storage, concerns over intermittency can be addressed. At which point, humankind can concentrate on the main issue: the fact that climate change, pollution and resource scarcity are threatening our continued existence.

The liquid metal battery invented by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Donald Sadoway and his team is a fiendishly clever and surprisingly simple solution that transpired through the realisation that it must come at the right cost point. Thinking outside the box, Sadoway told a TED Talk audience that he was inspired by the huge scale of aluminium production, and sought to develop a process based on similar liquid metal chemistries at the same giant economy of scale.

And he did. The result was an all liquid battery: liquid metals for both electrodes and molten salt for the electrolyte. But this is not a chemistry lesson. And I am not an MIT professor. What is important for the layman is the gift of scalability and thus cost effectiveness that the revolutionary system offers.

Indeed, the concept has captured some serious attention. Bill Gates is so taken with the project that he has invested in the company Sadoway is involved in—the ingeniously named Liquid Metal Battery Corporation.

Gates writes on his Notes site: “To reduce the impact of climate change and meet the world’s energy demand, we need a reliable source of energy that’s cheap and emits no carbon.

Over the last 50 years, the technology associated with generating wind and solar power has advanced, but not the technology to store it. Hopefully, that’s changing”.

The story is an exciting one. Through investment we can support innovation, and through innovation we can create solutions.

You may not be able to follow directly in Bill Gate’s footsteps (who can?), but supporting innovative solutions that seek to revolutionise entire industries (and enjoying significant prosperity in the process) is worth serious consideration. It’s also a question of taste; would you prefer to support clean energy or fracking?

We gently usher you down a more sustainable path in our new Guide to Sustainable Investment, which you can download for free.

Looking towards a blue and green tomorrow… While the north wind doth blow and the sun doth shine, huge banks of liquid metal batteries could be storing energy for times of peak use, making full use of the remarkable energy that surrounds us. We can’t wait.

Further reading:

Energy storage is here, and it’s waiting to be unleashed

The hunt for pioneering energy storage

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