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Powering the future

The U.S. invests another $12 million into Case’s efforts to build a better battery.

Advances in wind and solar systems mean more renewable energy will be streaming into the power grid, and that means society needs a bigger, better battery to store the new energy. The U.S. Department of Energy thinks part of the answer is brewing in a chemical engineering lab on Case Quad.

In August, the DOE awarded a four-year, $12 million grant to work led by Robert Savinell, a Distinguished University Professor and the George S. Dively Professor of Engineering in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. That follows a nearly $11 million grant the DOE awarded to Savinell’s project in 2018—for a total of $23 million across eight years.

Savinell, who directs the Breakthrough Electrolytes for Energy Storage (BEES) Center at the Case School of Engineering, has spent the past several years developing new electrolytes for huge battery systems, so-called “flow batteries,” which can store electricity anywhere and from hours to weeks at a time.

“These would not be batteries for electric vehicles,” Savinell explained, “but for storing much larger amounts of energy from wind farms, solar farms and at utility power plants so they can buffer the energy load as demand changes.”

Iron flow batteries use tanks of iron and salt dissolved in water to create an electrolyte solution, the liquid responsible for storing and creating energy. Those elements are non-toxic and nonflammable, making iron flow batteries safer and cheaper than lithium-ion batteries, which dominate grid-level energy storage today.

However, iron flow batteries cannot store as much energy as lithium-ion batteries, which is why Savinell’s team is seeking new formulas. He said the grant renewal will allow his team to continue to explore the science behind novel electrolytes it’s developing.

In the quest for a better flow battery, Case is partnering with eight other institutions: Ohio State University, University of Tennessee, Texas A&M, Hunter College, University of Notre Dame, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, New York University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Each partner brings a different expertise to the challenge, Savinell said. For Case, that means electrochemistry and novel materials. In the BEES Center, researchers are doing fundamental investigations on new kinds of electrolytes that they hope can render a cheaper, safer, longer-lasting flow battery.

Practical application is years away. But CWRU President Eric Kaler, a chemical engineer, sees transformative science underway.

“Their work holds tremendous potential for helping to secure our nation’s energy future,” he said.

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