Organic flow battery could transform renewable energy storage


January 14, 2014

An inexpensive high capacity organic battery has been developed by Professor Michael Aziz at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

An inexpensive high capacity organic battery has been developed by Professor Michael Aziz at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

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Researchers at Harvard have developed an inexpensive, high capacity, organic battery that uses carbon-based materials as electrolytes rather than metals. The researchers say the technology stands to be a game-changer in renewable energy storage by solving the intermittent generation problems faced by renewable sources, such as wind and solar. The battery offers large volume electricity storage not possible with solid-state batteries and at a fraction of the cost of existing flow battery technology.

Energy in flow batteries is stored in fluids held in external tanks, meaning storage capacity is only limited by the size of the tanks. As a result, larger amounts of energy can be stored than in traditional solid-electrode batteries. However, existing flow battery technology uses expensive metals, such as vanadium or platinum, as electrolytes, resulting in a high cost per kilowatt-hour of storage.

“The whole world of electricity storage has been using metal ions in various charge states but there is a limited number that you can put into solution and use to store energy, and none of them can economically store massive amounts of renewable energy,” says Professor Roy Gordon, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Chemistry at Harvard.

The Harvard approach utilizes the electrochemistry of quinones, organic molecules that are similar to molecules that store energy in plants and animals and are plentiful in crude oil and green plants. Using these naturally abundant and inexpensive organic molecules, the researchers have developed a metal-free flow battery that already performs as well as vanadium flow batteries, while using significantly less expensive chemicals and no precious metals.

“With organic molecules, we introduce a vast new set of possibilities," says Professor Gordon. "Some of them will be terrible and some will be really good. With these quinones we have the first ones that look really good.”

Using high-throughput molecular screening, over 10,000 quinone molecules were examined and one almost identical to that found in rhubarb was selected. The quinones are dissolved in water to prevent them from catching fire.

Large storage tanks would be needed to capture the energy produced by commercial solar or wind facilities. It has been proposed these could be either placed on-site or integrated into the grid. At a household level, smaller batteries could be used, making the technology a useful backup for the 20 percent of the global population that are off-grid.

"Imagine a device the size of a home heating oil tank sitting in your basement," says study co-lead author Michael Marshak. "It would store a day’s worth of sunshine from the solar panels on the roof of your house, potentially providing enough to power your household from late afternoon, through the night, into the next morning, without burning any fossil fuels,"

The technology now faces a grueling testing process to assess the degradation rate over thousands of cycles, with early tests indicating no signs of degradation. A Connecticut-based commercial collaborator, Sustainable Innovations, hopes to have a portable demonstration model ready in around three years and will bring the product to market when ready.

The team's research was published in the journal Nature. Under the OPEN 2012 program, the Harvard team received funding from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E).

Source: Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences



It would be cool but I suspect the energy density is too low for this to be practical in vehicles.


The man in the picture looks like a mad scientist! And his brain has cooked up just what we need!!! Very cool idea, no doubt the way to go for tomorrow and renewable energy!!

Yellow River

I still like the Ambri storage battery concept,which uses inorganic and inexpensive components: No need to worry about the number of charge cycles you can get,because the Ambri components never deteriorate.


Can this storage liquid be transfered from one container to another? Would'nt it be insane to convert gaz station into batterie fluid dispenser to use in car? haha

Julien Fournier

Very cool! Very well done, gentlemen. More power to you.

Mike Conley

i suspect the weight of both storage fluid and container would be more than useful for a car. i like the storage idea and think i'll research sustainable innovations to see if the company is worth investing in.


The article makes no mention of toxicity issues. The recent spills in West Virginia makes it abundantly clear that the best time to think about the downsides of a given technology is before it gets leaked in to the open world. Flow batteries and other tools are clearly essential tools for building a robust new energy industry that fits well into the world across the full scale from homes to grid, local & regional. A reagent that must be diluted in water to prevent catching fire sounds like a great material for storing & transporting energy but you want to make certain it does not wind up leaking into a basement, your yard, the nearest stream, down the median strip of a highway, etc., etc. I look forward to hearing more about this development!!


This looks really cool! Keep up the good work!

Facebook User

Toxity? We are refering to plant material.


Harvard ? wow ! this is gonna make the guys down the road at MIT crazy. After all , until CERNS nails down practical cold fusion, the storage of renewable energy is the holly grail. Great research team photo, those are the kind of faces that will soon now change the world. so many of the conflicts and hardships in the world today, can become irrelevant with a few more small hurtles in technology. hurtles just like this one ! congrats and good luck , please bring this ship on into port !!!


@ noteugene There are a lot of toxic plants.


Harvard is thinking backwards. Water already has more energy potential that isn't being developed or explored by mainstream science. The problem is that since it "violates" Boltzmann's Constant (a law of Thermodynamics) people are afraid to study it and put their reputations on the line. When it comes to science, laws were made to be broken. Research Water Cavitation, Sonoluminescence, and Zero-point Energy.

If a car can run on water, why not a home...or a building...or a city?

Daniel Gregory
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