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By Gerrill Griffith
WVU Research Corporation
West Virginia University experts are at work on a new generation of affordable, high capacity electric storage batteries that could help keep a busy nation’s lights shining brightly even in the aftermath of crippling weather events like the storm that violently knocked out power to millions of Americans in early July.
That massive storm, featuring heavy rain and high winds, was a rampage that snuffed out electricity service to homes and businesses from Virginia north to the Great Lakes and west to the nation’s heartland. Millions of people were in the dark, many for weeks as workers struggled to replace downed power lines and remove debris. But new high tech electrical batteries, if someday installed on a house-by-house or neighborhood basis, could keep power streaming to homes at a consistent rate even after severe weather events.
Imagine a scenario where batteries serving entire neighborhoods are strategically placed, charged up and ready to go when the main power goes down. Outages could be remedied, at least on a temporary basis, in seconds rather than days. The scenario is only part of a larger vision WVU researchers are hotly pursuing thanks to a new grant and a detailed development plan.
In addition to providing power in emergency situations, the electric storage batteries WVU wants to develop could be the bridge between West Virginia’s heritage of fossil energy production and the promise of renewable energy output that can keep America’s lights aglow and the state’s economy humming for decades.
An experienced research team composed of experts from a range of WVU colleges is set to explore that possibility and develop the technology to make it a reality under a major new initiative called the Center for Electrochemical Energy Storage or CEES.
The initiative just received a $1.3 million Research Challenge Grant from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s Division of Science and Research. Team leader and principal investigator Xingbo Liu is ready to flip the switches to start the process.
Liu, an associate professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department of the WVU Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, said large scale batteries are key to future efforts to regulate and maintain a steady stream of power from both traditional fossil fuel and new emerging renewable sources of electricity.
The electrical power supply system operates essentially at the speed of light: the instant that a consumer demands electricity, it is delivered. Few options exist for balancing supply and demand other than calling on generators to increase or decrease production in a process called “load following.”
Fuel input is the primary means for synchronizing the system. But renewable fuels like wind and sunlight are out of humans’ direct control so it is not feasible to rely on them to be dependable sources for “load following.” But storing electricity that renewable sources produce in affordable long lasting, safe, large-scale, rechargeable, high capacity energy storage devices/systems such as batteries can solve that problem and hold electricity ready until it is needed.
Liu said the rechargeable batteries could help “shave” peak demand, level intermittent renewable energy supply, provide emergency power, and enable numerous smart “hybrid” grid applications.
He said that the reserve capacity that coordinates supply and helps utilities meet peak demand is worth nearly 10 cents per kilowatt hour versus 2 cents per non reserve capacity kilowatt hour.
“That is why some utility companies have added expensive battery systems to wind generation stations,” Liu said. “The battery storage system compensates for the minute-to-minute changes in wind speed.”
But those batteries are not the large-scale affordable approaches that Liu envisions as the keys to greater energy generation efficiency.
“America needs more affordable, large-scale electrochemical storage systems,” he said. “They will not only help bring renewable power generation into the power equation but also help traditional fossil fueled plants operate at a more constant rate thereby minimizing equipment wear-and-tear and eliminating emissions that occur when they ramp up to meet demand.”
Affordable, efficient, large-scale battery storage is one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s grand challenges for research.
Liu said his project could hold the key to a new generation of affordable rechargeable batteries because it is based on a new technology that uses lower cost composite materials – materials that can allow batteries to operate at half the temperature of current technologies. Liu invented the proprietary technology that serves as the basis for the WVU approach.
“Today’s technologies rely on fairly exotic materials such as lithium whose supplies are limited predominantly to Venezuela,” he explained. “We will apply the latest computational and characterization techniques to composite materials which use more widely available raw resources. The performance of these materials will perform well enough at prices that would allow large-scale market penetration.”
The new WVU Center for Electrochemical Energy Storage takes advantage of the University’s unusual range of expertise and was created with goals of the WVU Strategic Plan firmly in mind.
For example, Liu emphasized that the Center supports WVU’s goals to: engage undergraduate, graduate, and professionals in a challenging academic environment; excel in research, creative activity, and innovation in all disciplines; and enhance the well-being and the quality of life of the people of West Virginia.
Liu has recruited computational scientists, chemists, a coatings expert, and a characterization specialist from STEM disciplines across WVU to build the technical program.
The materials development team consists of Liu and Xueyan Song, both from Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Department, Bingyun Li of the Department of Orthopaedics, WVU School of Medicine and Michael Shi, of the WVU Department of Chemistry in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.
A multi-scale modeling team is made up of Ismail Celik, the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the Statler College, and James Lewis, of the Department of Physics in Eberly College.
Liu said he also invited Patricia Lee from the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program of the College of Law to work with the WVU Office of Technology Transfer to move resulting research from the labs to the market. Trina Wafle and Kathleen Cullen from the National Research Center for Coal and Energy will provide program management assistance.
Liu said the Center will have a significant impact on the regional work force. Graduate courses in the field of energy storage are planned that will deliver M.S. and Ph.D. students ready to meet industry’s needs while an affiliates component will provide opportunities for Ph.D. students to work directly with industrial and national laboratory partners. The Center will also develop a research program for undergraduates to work with faculty during the semester and with partner organizations during summer internships.
The Center will pursue an aggressive outreach strategy to bring new jobs to West Virginia. Liu said the CEES will seek to collaborate with energy, aerospace, and transportation businesses that could lead to preservation and creation of R&D and manufacturing jobs in the state.
“We have developed long-term working relationships with our partners in national labs and industry,” Liu said. “We have established good relationships with energy storage researchers in two major national labs conducting stationary energy storage.”
Liu’s research continues to attract national attention. He is a recipient of the 2010 Early Career Faculty Fellow Award from the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society and was a key member of a research team that received an R&D 100 “Oscar of Innovation” award in 2010 for his work on a technology that could vastly improve the performance of solid oxide fuel cells as a new source of clean electricity.
Liu’s CEES approach is designed to have national impact in a state where a heritage of energy production is poised to merge with new renewable energy resource technologies to keep West Virginia at the forefront of America’s energy production.
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