Saturday, March 30, 2013

Renewable energy: breakthrough in chemical storage technology

Researchers at the University of Calgary have made a breakthrough in cheap and efficient catalysts for converting electricity into chemical storage through electrolysis. This could have a major impact in efficient use and regulation of power from renewable energy sources like wind farms and large scale solar energy power stations.

"This breakthrough offers a relatively cheaper method of storing and reusing electricity produced by wind turbines and solar panels," says Curtis Berlinguette, one of the study authors and associate professor of chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Energy Conversion.

Curtis Berlinguette and Simon Trudel from the University of Calgary Chemistry Department turned their attention to simpler and cheaper catalyst electrodes. They conducted laboratory tests using abundant metal compounds or oxides (including iron oxide or 'rust') to create mixed metal oxide catalysts having a disordered or amorphous, structure. The new catalysts they devised perform as well or better than expensive catalysts now on the market, yet theirs cost 1,000 times less.

One of the problems with renewable energy often put forward by it's detractors is it's sometimes intermittent nature. Energy storage technologies largely resolve this criticism, but they currently are expensive and inefficient to implement. They include traditional large scale battery storage, pumping water up to a dam when energy is abundant, molten salt heat storage already associated with some Concentrating solar thermal (CST) power stations, and chemical storage via electrolysis. A widely diversified renewable energy power grid also ameliorates to some extent the deficiencies in intermittency.

Chemical storage of energy through electrolysis is the breaking down of water into Hydrogen and Oxygen components by passing an electric current through expensive electrodes that act as catalysts. Recombination of oxygen and hydrogen at some later stage when needed produces electrical energy plus water. One of the problems for this process being widely used has been that the electrodes are made from rare, expensive and toxic metals in a crystalline structure.

According to the study (abstract):

"We demonstrate that a low-temperature process, photochemical metal-organic deposition, can produce amorphous mixed-metal oxide films for oxygen evolution reaction (OER) catalysis. The films contain a homogeneous distribution of metals with compositions that can be accurately controlled."

"Our work represents a critical step for realizing a large-scale, clean energy economy," adds Berlinguette, who's also director of the university's Centre for Advanced Solar Materials.

The researchers say that it would be possible to store and provide renewable power to a typical house with an electrolyzer about the size of a beer fridge, containing a few litres of water and converting hydrogen to electricity with virtually no emissions. But I think the greater benefit will be utilising this storage technology with large scale wind farms and solar installations to even out electricity supply to the existing electrical grid.

Commercialisation of the research is being undertaken by hydrogen economy startup FireWater Fuel Corp. According to the media release, FireWater Fuel Corp. expects to have a commercial product in the current large-scale electrolyzer market in 2014, and a prototype electrolyzer - using their new catalysts - ready by 2015 for testing in a home.

It is ironic perhaps that such an energy storage breakthrough to enhance the efficiency of renewable energy feed in to electrical grids comes from researchers in the State of Alberta which also hosts Tar Sands mining, one of the most destructive and carbon intensive projects on the planet that enhances global climate change.

Technology breakthroughs like this provide another reason for phasing out coal mining for power generation, and continued rollout and support of renewable energy. As I reported in September 2011 there is More than enough wind energy to power our world, coal power is so last century. And in January 2011 I reported on a study which showed that A carbon neutral solar and wind powered world in 20 to 40 years is possible to achieve. In November 2011 I reported on a cost breakthrough for using nanoparticle electrodes in grid battery energy storage. Beyond Zero Emissions published their Stationary energy plan in July 2010 for How Australia could achieve zero carbon emissions by 2020 with current technology.


  • University of Calgary media release 28 March 2013 - Discovery opens door to efficiently storing and reusing renewable energy
  • Rodney D. L. Smith, Mathieu S. Prévot, Randal D. Fagan, Zhipan Zhang, Pavel A. Sedach, Man Kit Jack Siu, Simon Trudel, Curtis P. Berlinguette, Photochemical Route for Accessing Amorphous Metal Oxide Materials for Water Oxidation Catalysis (abstract), Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1233638

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