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Researchers discover shocking new ingredient that could make better batteries: 'This could help improve and protect our grid'

The researchers "tweaked their new formula until the … battery achieved 60% more peak power."

Beta-cyclodextrin, New ingredient that could make better batteries

Photo Credit: iStock

A humble pantry staple played a key role in a revolutionary experiment in flow battery design. Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) used a dissolved simple sugar called β-cyclodextrin to boost the life and capacity of a flow battery system. This surprising breakthrough could help improve and protect our electrical grid.

As the world moves toward cleaner energy sources like wind and solar to meet our energy needs, maximizing energy storage will be critical to developing a reliable and sustainable power grid. While advancements are still needed, flow batteries could be the future of low-cost, long-duration energy storage that will be essential to meeting our growing energy demands.

Flow batteries are rechargeable power sources that use special liquids to create an electrical current when they flow next to each other. The liquids are held in tanks until needed, allowing the battery to be turned on or off quickly and easily.

Unlike lithium batteries, which can run for only a few hours and are costly to operate at a large scale, flow batteries can be easily scaled up simply by making the tanks bigger. According to MIT, flow batteries "can store hundreds of megawatt-hours of energy — enough to keep thousands of homes running for many hours on a single charge."

The new research found that adding the β-cyclodextrin sugar additive to the solution helped maintain the balance of the chemical reaction that releases energy from the storage tank, improving both the capacity and the longevity of energy storage. Using the dissolved sugar rather than a solid activator also minimizes the possibility of pieces breaking loose and disrupting the system. 

The research team ran continuous cycles for more than a year with only a slight loss of capacity. In a follow-up experiment, the PNNL team "tweaked their new formula until the flow battery achieved 60% more peak power than earlier versions," CleanTechnica reports.

Successful lab studies are "another step towards scaling up to the football-field size envisioned for large scale, long duration energy storage systems" that would use this new generation of flow battery technology to reach the amount of storage needed to power large cities. Because the sun isn't always shining, and the wind doesn't always blow, creative large-scale energy storage solutions will be necessary to keep a steady stream of clean energy flowing to homes and businesses.

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