Texas Scores Another Clean Tech Point, Flow Battery Edition

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The US state of Texas is famous for many things, including new laws aimed at protecting the state’s fossil energy producers. In a curious twist of fate, though, Texas has also become the go-to place for clean energy innovators to do the work of killing off coal, oil, and gas. The latest example is a new manufacturing venture that will produce a unique new formula, aimed at cutting the cost of flow battery technology. Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?

The Flow Battery Revolution Is Coming

In terms of grid-scale energy storage, the flow battery field has some catching up to do. Conventional lithium-ion batteries are currently the energy storage medium of choice for electricity from solar arrays and wind farms. They typically deliver about four hours of storage, which is sufficient to handle routine grid management tasks. However, as more solar and wind come online, energy storage needs to scale up into much longer periods of time.

The Energy Department has been on the prowl for new long duration energy storage technology of 10 hours or more, and flow batteries are on its list.

Unlike conventional lithium batteries, a flow battery works on the principle that an electrical current can emerge when two specialized solutions are set in motion together, separated only by a thin membrane. Scaling up can be as simple as using larger tanks to store the liquids.

Past iterations of flow battery technology were bulky and cumbersome, and they tended to degrade quickly due to contamination across the membrane. The state of the technology has come a long way in the 21st century. Flow batteries are already becoming common for stationary uses, and at least one startup is planning an electric vehicle application (check out more CleanTechnica flow battery stories here).

The US Needs A Domestic Supply Chain For The Flow Battery Of The Future

The material that goes into a flow battery solution can vary, but for now the element vanadium has held the pole position (not to be confused with vibranium, btw). CleanTechnica took note of vanadium flow batteries about 10 years ago, and they have dominated the field since then.

Vanadium is commonly used in an alloying agent for high strength metals applications. As applied to flow batteries, it shares a dual identity with its namesake, the Scandinavian goddess Freyja. Also known as Vanadis in old Norse, Freyja rules over both fertility and death. Similarly, vanadium can exist in different states of oxidation, meaning that it can be used in both of the solutions deployed in a flow battery.

In addition to resolving the risk of degradation due to cross-contamination, the use of a single element simplifies the flow battery supply chain and manufacturing process.

On the down side, though, much of the global vanadium supply is currently dominated by China, with Russia, South Africa, and Brazil following by a wide margin.

A New Alternative Flow Battery Solution Is Ready For Action

Recovering vanadium from end-of-life flow batteries could help pump up the domestic supply of vanadium in the US. Increasing the co-production of vanadium with existing mining and processing operations could also help avoid the environmental impacts of opening up new mines.

Regardless of the potential for onshoring more vanadium production, the main issue is that dependence on a single, relatively expensive element for the flow battery supply chain presents a challenge for scaling up, at a time when global climate catastrophe is looming just around the corner.

The goal of low cost and high performance has been a difficult one to achieve for alternative materials. To help things along, MIT recently introduced a new “techno-economic” modeling platform aimed at guiding flow battery chemistry innovators, with an emphasis on practical applications.

One solution is already close to commercial production. The California startup Quino Energy has developed a new flow battery chemistry that deploys quinones dissolved in water. Quinones are abundant and inexpensive organic molecules commonly found in nature and in pharmaceutical products.

Quinones also frequently show up in dyes, such as those used in the textile industry. Synthetic dyestuffs are typically produced from coal tar and petrochemicals, which does not sound particularly sustainable. However, the use of petrochemicals in a flow battery is of apiece with other aspects of the energy transition, such as the lightweight plastic parts and synthetic rubber tires used in electric vehicles, the point being to focus on near-term climate goals until more sustainable materials emerge over the long term.

Texas Scores Another Clean Tech Hit

Quino Energy got its start in 2021 as a spinoff from Harvard University and promptly began working with the Buffalo, New York, firm Electrosynthesis Company to develop a manufacturing line. Quino and its partners also nailed down an Energy Department grant of $4.58 million in 2021, aimed at accelerating the production of flow batteries for grid and industrial applications.

Since then, Quino and Electrosynthesis have progressed rapidly through the stages of pre-manufacturing. In the latest development, earlier this week Quino announced it has reached Manufacturing Readiness Level 7, meaning that its process is now ready for low-volume production.

The announcement follows a Level 6 stage that involved using the quinone-based battery active material in a flow battery that was originally manufactured to accommodate vanadium, indicating that Quino’s formula can be used as a drop-in replacement for vanadium in existing systems. The flow battery has been in operation in a microgrid at the Buffalo site.

And, that’s where Texas comes in. Now that Quino has achieved Level 7 scale-up, it is moving its manufacturing operation from the East Coast down to Houston, Texas, sometime later this year, with the aim of stepping up production to supply upcoming pilot-scale demonstrations.

“The pilot line converts cheap and abundant dyestuff chemicals into high-performance, long-lifetime quinone battery active material through an electrochemical reaction, using a modified flow battery stack itself as the chemical reactor,” the company explains.

“At full production rate, the line can produce up to 100 kWh of these organic battery material reactants per day at a cost comparable to or lower than vanadium, a critical material commonly sourced from Russia or China that has been used in most flow batteries to date,” they add.

Quino is also looking forward to beating the cost of lithium phosphate batteries by a wide margin.

“Ultimately, Quino Energy’s technology will enable organic flow battery systems to reach half the cost of lithium-ion batteries,” the company states.

Towards A More Diversified Energy Future

If all goes according to plan, there will still be plenty of room for vanadium in the flow battery field, the point being to develop a diverse range of technologies that minimize environmental impacts throughout the entire lifecycle.

In addition, if lithium-ion batteries lose their slot in the stationary energy storage market to flow batteries, the exploding electric vehicle market could easily make up the difference.

As for Texas, the state is still firmly entrenched in its fossil energy past. However, Texas also emerged as an early leader in wind energy in the early 2000s, a position that it has held ever since. The state is ready to blow past California for installed solar capacity as well.

With all that renewable energy on hand, Texas has been attracting investors in emerging industries including green hydrogen and efuels (see lots more CleanTechnica stories about clean tech investment in Texas here).

The state’s well-known grid woes have also prompted an explosion in energy storage investment. So far much of the activity is focused on conventional lithium-ion batteries, but keep an eye out for new developments including flow batteries, an innovative pumped hydro system from the Texas firm Quidnet, and a system that repurposes derelict oil wells for gravity-based energy storage from the California firm Renewell.

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Image: A new flow battery chemistry will be manufactured in Texas (screenshot, via YouTube courtesy of Quino Energy).

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