The ink has barely dried on Cummins’ $24 million investment in a new vanadium redox battery, and it’s already jumping to the front of the energy storage line. The company’s $24 million stake in startup VoltStorage also comes with new iron redox flux technology.
What’s wrong with lithium-ion energy storage?
There is nothing wrong with lithium-ion energy storage. The problem is that global demand for energy storage has nowhere to go but up. While lithium is relatively abundant, lithium extraction is a dirty business. The environmental impacts add up. Local opposition to new mines and other facilities could halt further development.
Here in the US, the Department of Energy is supporting research and development that would combine lithium mining with geothermal drilling. The idea is to minimize the environmental impact by bundling two operations into one. One such geothermal lithium facility went live last year in California’s Salton Sea and is expected to reach full operation by 2024.
Vanadium Redox Flow Battery Solution
While all of this is happening, energy storage stakeholders have been eyeing vanadium redox battery technology. In addition to access to a recyclable supply chain that can avoid conflict issues, fans of flow batteries note a long list of advantages over lithium-ion technology, including lower costs, longer lifetimes and easy scalability.
The “flow” in a redox flow battery refers to the electricity produced when two specialized fluids flow side by side, usually separated by a thin membrane. Liquids are stored in tanks and increasing battery capacity is simply a matter of building larger tanks.
That sounds simple enough. However, no such thing as a free lunch, market-ready flow batteries were long overdue.
NASA first developed the technology in the 1970s, and the Department of Energy was still trying to find a way to commercialize it during the Obama administration. There are many recipes for redox flow batteries, but nothing seemed to click until 2012, when the Department of Energy came firmly on the side of vanadium.
Vanadium (not Vibranium!) is a hard, silvery-gray transition metal in the same group of the periodic table as gold, silver, and iron. Vanadium doesn’t get as much attention as these other elements, but it happens to be the fifth most abundant transition metal in the Earth’s crust, which is good from a supply chain perspective.
As for why the Department of Energy has vanadium in mind, it’s easy. Other flow battery formulations require two different liquids, which can lead to cross-contamination and other complications. Vanadium redox flow batteries are sufficient only with vanadium. Let the Department of Energy explain:
“Unlike other RFBs, vanadium redox flow batteries (VRBs) use only one element (vanadium) in both reservoirs, taking advantage of vanadium’s ability to exist in multiple states. By using a single element in both reservoirs, VRBs can overcome cross-contamination degradation, a significant problem with other RFB chemistries that use more than one element.
Cummins Hitches Long Train Ride
That brings us to Cummins, another word that doesn’t often come up in general conversation when the topic turns to cleantech. However, Cummins is flexing its electric mobility muscles, and part of the plan is low-cost, long-term grid-scale energy storage.
Last week, Cummins announced its new $24 million investment in VoltStorage, noting “an especially environmentally friendly vanadium redox flow technology for commercial and agricultural applications.”
“Furthermore, the international R&D team is working on a low-cost iron-salt battery whose properties are particularly suitable for providing baseload capacity for wind and solar farms,” Cummins added.
Cummins’ dual-purpose investment will allow VoltStorage to expand its redox battery technology for residential applications beyond agricultural and commercial applications, while fending off the iron salt angle.
What is this iron salt battery you speak of?
Sodium as an energy storage medium is not unusual, as is iron. VoltStorage wraps it all up in something it calls a long-life battery.
“The materials needed to produce a long-life battery are not only environmentally friendly, but also cost-effective and available worldwide,” enthuses VoltStorage.
The key ingredient is ferric chloride, which can be obtained as a by-product of steelmaking and other processes. The electrolyte consists of water and iron, which VoltStorage points out is non-flammable.
“Conceived as a long-term storage solution with cascading storage capacities, the long-life battery is suitable for stationary applications with a power requirement of 10-100 hours. The storage system has a modular design, so capacity and performance can be expanded as needed,” they add, noting the 20-year/10,000-charge cycle life of their iron salt energy storage technology.
VoltStorage also explains that its iron battery can withstand temperature extremes of up to 50 degrees Celsius.
Last year, the company teamed up with the Landshut University of Applied Sciences in a research project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology to expand the range of applications.
Cummins in league with Biden Admin. On Clean Tech
In addition to its hands-on cleantech activities, Cummins has also joined with hundreds of other American companies to support President Biden’s climate signature, a proposal formerly known as “Build Back Better.”
Under its new title, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the bill spent the weekend deep in the bowels of the US Senate’s sausage making machine, finally emerging when all 50 Democratic senators voted in favor and the vice president delivered a tiebreaker. Kamala Harris.
For those of you keeping score at home, that means the bill didn’t exactly get zero support from Republican senators.
This is a strange position from a party that claims to be economically responsible, although it is aligned with the interests of fossil energy stakeholders.
Green investor group Ceres included Cummins in a group of heavy hitters in the US economy that publicly supported passage of the deflation bill, along with Carrier, Equinor, General Motors, Johnson Controls, Kaiser Permanente, Salesforce, Siemens, United Airlines, Walmart and Workday.
Ceres also asked 40 A-listers to join a public letter in support of the Inflation Reduction Act. BP America, Ford Motor Company, IKEA Retail US, Levi Strauss & Co., Logitech, Lyft, Ørsted North America, PSEG, SAP, Shell USA and Unilever United States signed up, along with some lesser-known but influential firms like SB Energy.
“This package promises to unleash American innovation and ingenuity — and, as a result, support the creation of millions of jobs,” they wrote.
Democrats are listening to corporate America on cleantech, but top Republicans apparently aren’t. If only they could get their collective heads out of the womb for a second or two, maybe they could learn something.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: New energy storage technology courtesy of VoltStorage.
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