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Power when the sun doesn’t shine

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Power when the sun doesn’t shine


Power when the sun doesn’t shine

by Deborah Halber | MIT Energy Initiative

Boston MA (SPX) Mar 04, 2024






In 2016, at the huge Houston energy conference CERAWeek, MIT materials scientist Yet-Ming Chiang found himself talking to a Tesla executive about a thorny problem: how to store the output of solar panels and wind turbines for long durations.

Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Mateo Jaramillo, a vice president at Tesla, knew that utilities lacked a cost-effective way to store renewable energy to cover peak levels of demand and to bridge the gaps during windless and cloudy days. They also knew that the scarcity of raw materials used in conventional energy storage devices needed to be addressed if renewables were ever going to displace fossil fuels on the grid at scale.



Energy storage technologies can facilitate access to renewable energy sources, boost the stability and reliability of power grids, and ultimately accelerate grid decarbonization. The global market for these systems – essentially large batteries – is expected to grow tremendously in the coming years. A study by the nonprofit LDES (Long Duration Energy Storage) Council pegs the long-duration energy storage market at between 80 and 140 terawatt-hours by 2040. “That’s a really big number,” Chiang notes. “Every 10 people on the planet will need access to the equivalent of one EV [electric vehicle] battery to support their energy needs.”



In 2017, one year after they met in Houston, Chiang and Jaramillo joined forces to co-found Form Energy in Somerville, Massachusetts, with MIT graduates Marco Ferrara SM ’06, PhD ’08 and William Woodford PhD ’13, and energy storage veteran Ted Wiley.



“There is a burgeoning market for electrical energy storage because we want to achieve decarbonization as fast and as cost-effectively as possible,” says Ferrara, Form’s senior vice president in charge of software and analytics.



Investors agreed. Over the next six years, Form Energy would raise more than $800 million in venture capital.



Bridging gaps

The simplest battery consists of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte. During discharge, with the help of the electrolyte, electrons flow from the negative anode to the positive cathode. During charge, external voltage reverses the process. The anode becomes the positive terminal, the cathode becomes the negative terminal, and electrons move back to where they started. Materials used for the anode, cathode, and electrolyte determine the battery’s weight, power, and cost “entitlement,” which is the total cost at the component level.



During the 1980s and 1990s, the use of lithium revolutionized batteries, making them smaller, lighter, and able to hold a charge for longer. The storage devices Form Energy has devised are rechargeable batteries based on iron, which has several advantages over lithium. A big one is cost.



Chiang once declared to the MIT Club of Northern California, “I love lithium-ion.” Two of the four MIT spinoffs Chiang founded center on innovative lithium-ion batteries. But at hundreds of dollars a kilowatt-hour (kWh) and with a storage capacity typically measured in hours, lithium-ion was ill-suited for the use he now had in mind.



The approach Chiang envisioned had to be cost-effective enough to boost the attractiveness of renewables. Making solar and wind energy reliable enough for millions of customers meant storing it long enough to fill the gaps created by extreme weather conditions, grid outages, and when there is a lull in the wind or a few days of clouds.



To be competitive with legacy power plants, Chiang’s method had to come in at around $20 per kilowatt-hour of stored energy – one-tenth the cost of lithium-ion battery storage.



But how to transition from expensive batteries that store and discharge over a couple of hours to some as-yet-undefined, cheap, longer-duration technology?



“One big ball of iron”

That’s where Ferrara comes in. Ferrara has a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of L’Aquila in his native Italy. In 2017, as a research affiliate at the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering, he worked with Chiang to model the grid’s need to manage renewables’ intermittency.



How intermittent depends on where you are. In the United States, for instance, there’s the windy Great Plains; the sun-drenched, relatively low-wind deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada; and the often-cloudy Pacific Northwest.



Ferrara, in collaboration with Professor Jessika Trancik of MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and her MIT team, modeled four representative locations in the United States and concluded that energy storage with capacity costs below roughly $20/kWh and discharge durations of multiple days would allow a wind-solar mix to provide cost-competitive, firm electricity in resource-abundant locations.



Now that they had a time frame, they turned their attention to materials. At the price point Form Energy was aiming for, lithium was out of the question. Chiang looked at plentiful and cheap sulfur. But a sulfur, sodium, water, and air battery had technical challenges.



Thomas Edison once used iron as an electrode, and iron-air batteries were first studied in the 1960s. They were too heavy to make good transportation batteries. But this time, Chiang and team were looking at a battery that sat on the ground, so weight didn’t matter. Their priorities were cost and availability.



“Iron is produced, mined, and processed on every continent,” Chiang says. “The Earth is one big ball of iron. We wouldn’t ever have to worry about even the most ambitious projections of how much storage that the world might use by mid-century.” If Form ever moves into the residential market, “it’ll be the safest battery you’ve ever parked at your house,” Chiang laughs. “Just iron, air, and water.”



Scientists call it reversible rusting. While discharging, the battery takes in oxygen and converts iron to rust. Applying an electrical current converts the rusty pellets back to iron, and the battery “breathes out” oxygen as it charges. “In chemical terms, you have iron, and it becomes iron hydroxide,” Chiang says. “That means electrons were extracted. You get those electrons to go through the external circuit, and now you have a battery.”



Form Energy’s battery modules are approximately the size of a washer-and-dryer unit. They are stacked in 40-foot containers, and several containers are electrically connected with power conversion systems to build storage plants that can cover several acres.



The right place at the right time

The modules don’t look or act like anything utilities have contracted for before.



That’s one of Form’s key challenges. “There is not widespread knowledge of needing these new tools for decarbonized grids,” Ferrara says. “That’s not the way utilities have typically planned. They’re looking at all the tools in the toolkit that exist today, which may not contemplate a multi-day energy storage asset.”



Form Energy’s customers are largely traditional power companies seeking to expand their portfolios of renewable electricity. Some are in the process of decommissioning coal plants and shifting to renewables.



Ferrara’s research pinpointing the need for very low-cost multi-day storage provides key data for power suppliers seeking to determine the most cost-effective way to integrate more renewable energy.



Using the same modeling techniques, Ferrara and team show potential customers how the technology fits in with their existing system, how it competes with other technologies, and how, in some cases, it can operate synergistically with other storage technologies.



“They may need a portfolio of storage technologies to fully balance renewables on different timescales of intermittency,” he says. But other than the technology developed at Form, “there isn’t much out there, certainly not within the cost entitlement of what we’re bringing to market.” Thanks to Chiang and Jaramillo’s chance encounter in Houston, Form has a several-year lead on other companies working to address this challenge.



In June 2023, Form Energy closed its biggest deal to date for a single project: Georgia Power’s order for a 15-megawatt/1,500-megawatt-hour system. That order brings Form’s total amount of energy storage under contracts with utility customers to 40 megawatts/4 gigawatt-hours. To meet the demand, Form is building a new commercial-scale battery manufacturing facility in West Virginia.



The fact that Form Energy is creating jobs in an area that lost more than 10,000 steel jobs over the past decade is not lost on Chiang. “And these new jobs are in clean tech. It’s super exciting to me personally to be doing something that benefits communities outside of our traditional technology centers.



“This is the right time for so many reasons,” Chiang says. He says he and his Form Energy co-founders feel “tremendous urgency to get these batteries out into the world.”



Research Report:This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.


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Project receives funding for advanced solar-thermal research

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Project receives funding for advanced solar-thermal research


Project receives funding for advanced solar-thermal research

by Sophie Jenkins

London, UK (SPX) Apr 12, 2024






The University of Surrey, leading a collaboration with the University of Bristol and Northumbria University, has received a GBP 1.1 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop solar-thermal devices. These devices aim to revolutionize the way we heat homes and generate power, differing from traditional solar cells by converting sunlight into heat for energy production.

The research focuses on creating surfaces that selectively absorb sunlight and emit heat through near-infrared radiation. This project leverages the combined expertise of the institutions in photonics, advanced materials, applied electromagnetics, and nanofabrication to address a global need for efficient solar energy utilization.



Professor Marian Florescu, Principal Investigator from Surrey, highlighted the importance of the project: “The sun provides an immense amount of energy daily, much more than we currently harness. By advancing these solar-absorbing surfaces, we aim to transform solar energy use into a sustainable powerhouse for our increasing energy needs.”



Goals of the project include developing high-temperature solar absorbers, enhancing the efficiency of solar-absorbing structures, and improving the management of heat generated from sunlight. Prototypes will be constructed to demonstrate these technologies.



Professor Marin Cryan, Co-Principal Investigator from the University of Bristol, explained their focus on thermionic solar cell technology, which uses concentrated sunlight to initiate electron emission for high-efficiency solar cells.



Dr. Daniel Ho, Co-Principal Investigator from Northumbria University, added: “Our university leads in thermophotovoltaic research, utilizing advanced thermal analysis techniques. We’re excited to contribute to groundbreaking developments in renewable energy.”


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Improving Solar and Wind Power Integration in the U.S. Grid

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Improving Solar and Wind Power Integration in the U.S. Grid


Improving Solar and Wind Power Integration in the U.S. Grid

by Clarence Oxford

Los Angeles CA (SPX) Apr 11, 2024






The Midcontinent Independent System Operator manages a high-voltage electricity network spanning from Manitoba to Louisiana, serving 45 million users. This vast operation requires maintaining a balance between the energy generated and the demand across its regions.

The traditional reliance on coal and natural gas power plants is changing. For example, wind farms in Iowa now generate over 64% of the state’s electricity, and recent initiatives like the Alliant Energy Solar Farm at Iowa State University represent the shift towards renewable energy sources. These sources, however, introduce variability and uncertainty into grid management.



Zhaoyu Wang, a Northrop Grumman associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Iowa State, emphasized, The power system seeks certainty which is challenging with unpredictable natural resources like sun and wind.



Wang is leading the MODERNISE project, aimed at modernizing grid operations. The U.S. Department of Energy has earmarked a $3 million grant over three years for this initiative, with an additional $1.1 million coming from project collaborators including Argonne National Laboratory and Siemens Corp.



The project, titled Modernizing Operation and Decision-Making Tools Enabling Resource Management in Stochastic Environment, involves developing computational tools that allow for better integration and management of renewable energy sources into the grid.



Jennifer M. Granholm, U.S. Secretary of Energy, supported this initiative stating that effective integration of renewable resources is essential for deploying clean energy. The project is part of a larger $34 million investment by the DOE to develop technologies that enhance grid reliability and efficiency.



By aggregating smaller renewable energy resources into larger operational blocks, MODERNISE aims to improve grid stability and predictability. Bai Cui, project co-leader and assistant professor at Iowa State, explained that this approach allows operators to manage grid operations more effectively by understanding and handling the uncertainties of renewable supply sources.



This initiative promises to make grid operations more adaptable and efficient, critical for accommodating the increasing reliance on renewable energy.


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Quantum Material Achieves Up to 190% Efficiency in Solar Cells

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Quantum Material Achieves Up to 190% Efficiency in Solar Cells


Quantum Material Achieves Up to 190% Efficiency in Solar Cells

by Clarence Oxford

Los Angeles CA (SPX) Apr 11, 2024






Researchers from Lehigh University have developed a material that significantly enhances the efficiency of solar panels.

A prototype incorporating this material as the active layer in a solar cell displays an average photovoltaic absorption rate of 80%, a high rate of photoexcited carrier generation, and an external quantum efficiency (EQE) reaching up to 190%. This figure surpasses the theoretical Shockley-Queisser efficiency limit for silicon-based materials, advancing the field of quantum materials for photovoltaics.



This work signifies a major advance in sustainable energy solutions, according to Chinedu Ekuma, professor of physics at Lehigh. He and Lehigh doctoral student Srihari Kastuar recently published their findings in the journal Science Advances. Ekuma highlighted the innovative approaches that could soon redefine solar energy efficiency and accessibility.



The material’s significant efficiency improvement is largely due to its unique intermediate band states, which are energy levels within the material’s electronic structure that are ideally positioned for solar energy conversion.



These states have energy levels in the optimal subband gaps-energy ranges capable of efficiently absorbing sunlight and producing charge carriers-between 0.78 and 1.26 electron volts.



Moreover, the material excels in absorbing high levels in the infrared and visible regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.



In traditional solar cells, the maximum EQE is 100%, which corresponds to the generation and collection of one electron for each photon absorbed. However, newer materials and configurations can generate and collect more than one electron per high-energy photon, achieving an EQE over 100%.



Multiple Exciton Generation (MEG) materials, though not yet widely commercialized, show immense potential for enhancing solar power system efficiency. The Lehigh-developed material utilizes intermediate band states to capture photon energy typically lost in traditional cells, including energy lost through reflection and heat production.



The research team created this novel material using van der Waals gaps, atomically small spaces between layered two-dimensional materials, to confine molecules or ions. Specifically, they inserted zerovalent copper atoms between layers of germanium selenide (GeSe) and tin sulfide (SnS).



Ekuma developed the prototype based on extensive computer modeling that indicated the system’s theoretical potential. Its rapid response and enhanced efficiency strongly indicate the potential of Cu-intercalated GeSe/SnS as a quantum material for advanced photovoltaic applications, offering a path for efficiency improvements in solar energy conversion, he stated.



While the integration of this quantum material into existing solar energy systems requires further research, the techniques used to create these materials are already highly advanced, with scientists mastering precise methods for inserting atoms, ions, and molecules.



Research Report:Chemically Tuned Intermediate Band States in Atomically Thin CuxGeSe/SnS Quantum Material for Photovoltaic Applications


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