A battery that you can ‘refuel’ instantly: the vanadium flow battery

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This post is part of an ongoing series of energy storage posts by intern Brett Szmajda.

Walking into the Castle Hill stores of the Powerhouse Museum is like walking into the prop warehouse of a Hollywood movie studio. You enter through a nondescript door in a modest, unassuming looking set of buildings, and when you turn around you encounter a cornucopia of steam engines, Mardi Gras floats, flywheels the size of a Mini Cooper, and exotic old X-ray machines that could be used for set dressing in a Frankenstein remake. The air is crisp and clean from the climate control system; the objects are neatly ordered and tagged, on stacks as high as a giraffe. We round a corner, and we come across an object that looks as if a drawer full of hanging files got intimate with the plumbing section at Bunnings.

“Take a look at this.” says Debbie.
“What is it?” I say.
“It’s one of the most promising battery technologies of the last 20 years,” she begins.

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The vanadium flow battery.

The vanadium flow battery is a brilliant archetype of the trials and triumphs that accompany research and development. Throughout the development, led by Professor Maria Skyllas-Kazacos at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, research momentum was maintained by the phenomenal theoretical promise of the battery. Imagine a fully electric car that you could ‘recharge’ in a matter of minutes. Imagine a battery that would let small businesses and power companies store cheap energy generated at night, and use that power during the day, when energy is expensive.

A typical rechargeable battery contains two electrodes of differing material, immersed in a liquid electrolyte; chemical reactions occur between the differing metals of the electrodes, mediated by the electrolyte. But in a flow battery, like the vanadium battery, the principal chemical reactions instead occur between two liquid electrolytes. These electrolytes are pumped past one another (hence the name flow battery) in separate chambers that are separated by a thin membrane. As the two electrolytes flow past one another, they exchange ions (charged molecules) across the membrane, and this generates current.

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Close-up of the exterior of the vanadium battery cells, where the electrolytes interact with each other.

To understand the difficulty in designing a flow battery, consider how your lungs extract oxygen from the air, and remove waste carbon dioxide from your body. Inhaling causes thin-walled sacs in your lungs (called alveoli) to inflate. Alveoli are surrounded by clusters of blood vessels; oxygen diffuses across the thin alveolar membrane, into the blood. Simultaneously, carbon dioxide diffuses from your blood into your lungs, to be exhaled. It’s critically important that the blood and air are kept in separate compartments (failure to do so would of course be fatal), and only selected molecules — oxygen and carbon dioxide — are allowed to pass through. Analogously, the challenge of designing a flow battery is making a membrane that will allow current to flow between the different electrolytes, but that doesn’t let the two electrolytes mix. The vanadium battery wasn’t the first flow battery, but it was the first to use the same metal in both electrolyte solutions, thus neatly eliminating the problem of electrolytes mixing across the membrane.

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Golfcart powered by vanadium battery, used as a prototype during battery development.

The unique strengths of the vanadium battery are a short recharge time and the ability to store charge efficiently for long periods. The vanadium battery can be quickly recharged at high voltages; or — perhaps most attractively — it can be instantly recharged by replacing the electrolyte with fresh, charged electrolyte. Second, by pumping the electrolytes out of the ‘cells’ (where the reactions take place) and into storage vats, the vanadium battery can sit for many hours, with no self-discharge. These two attributes suggested potential commercial applications. For the consumer, there could be electric cars that you refilled with vanadium ‘fuel’ instead of gasoline; and for the business customer, the vanadium battery could be used as energy storage for the electric grid, allowing arbitrage (charge batteries when electricity is cheap, use battery power when electricity is expensive) and providing stability during intermittent drops in power supply.

Vanadium batteries have found a home providing energy storage for power stations, with several stations world-wide trialling the technology. Unfortunately, the harsh light of reality intruded on the dream of vanadium-fuelled cars — vanadium batteries are expensive to manufacture, have problems operating at low temperatures, and no battery to date has an energy density (that is, power per unit weight) that can compete with the fantastic energy density of petrol. But research continues: scientists have recently boasted numerous improvements to the energy density and temperature tolerance of vanadium batteries. Don’t give up on the dreams of the vanadium car.