Water-Based Flow Batteries Promise Triple EV Range at a Quarter the Cost

By · September 03, 2013

Work on water-flow battery

Let’s start out by saying that a collaboration between GE Global Research and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is promising great things from water-based “flow” batteries. The claim is triple the driving range for electric cars equipped with lithium-ion battery packs, at a quarter the price.

Dr. Grigorii Soloveichik, a chemist and project leader at the GE unit, told me, “We’re confident about the energy density and costs, but we also have to show that the batteries can quickly charge and discharge.” He said that the new batteries should be easily able to beat a Department of Energy goal of 240 miles on a charge.

Before you get too excited, GE and Berkeley are still in the lab stage. Dr. Soloveichik said that what’s happened so far is “some experiments to show it’s real.” The joint operation is planning to produce, within a year, a chemical cell “that will demonstrate what will be needed to produce a working battery.” The actual pack “for a small vehicle” is likely to take three years, he said. To get to a pre-production pack stage, two or three more years are needed, Dr. Soloveichik said. Don’t expect to see these cells in the 2015 Nissan LEAF.

Dr. Soloveichik said that the key to the research lab’s flow battery is “really cheap stuff, inexpensive materials.” According to GE, the flow battery uses a water-based solution with inorganic chemicals “that are capable of transferring more than one electron, providing high energy density.”

water-based flow battery

The key to affordability in the GE/Lawrence Berkeley battery is low-cost materials. (GE graphic)

Down This Road Before

I definitely hope the water battery happens, but by now I’ve visited at least half a dozen college labs where a white-coated academic told me excitedly about a breakthrough, with cars on the road in a year. Or maybe two years, tops. Pushing the battery envelope must be really hard, because none of that tech has made it to market yet. Read up on Envia and the Prieto Battery.

If it's any consolation, while they are waiting for their breakthroughs to materialize, the scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory can now use a City CarShare membership to access Dash, a carmaker-supported electric vehicle sharing operation in the Bay Area. The East Bay operation, in conjunction with Toyota and to launch September 11, involves more than 24 Scion iQ electric vehicles with approximately 50-mile range. The cars will be based around the Hacienda Business Park in Pleasanton.

The program mirrors other manufacturer-supported EV sharing operations run by Daimler (Car2Go in San Diego and other cities) and BMW (DriveNow in San Francisco). It’s an especially popular concept in California, because EVs are so popular there—even with the current state of EV battery technology.


· · 4 years ago

This is such a shame this is going to take 3 years, mainstream adoption is depending on this type of technology.

· · 4 years ago

"The actual pack “for a small vehicle” is likely to take three years, he said. To get to a pre-production pack stage, two or three more years are needed,"

So actually more like 5-6 years.

And no it isn't any consolation. Just because they can doesn't mean they will. Ah..sorry to be such a downer. Think happy thoughts!

· · 4 years ago

I love the paragraph after "Down This Road Before".

· · 4 years ago

I wouldn't feel all that downtrodden, jah. This article simply shows that talented people are working on important things in regards to EVs and that, while production versions are still years off, real progress is occurring.

Read the opening paragraph again, as it's going to be more than 3 years (maybe 6?) before
a real production version of this thing will be with us. Still, I'm optimistic when I hear of these developments.

It might now be a race between solid state - or non-liquid electrolyte - batteries (check out the Prieto Battery link in the article and read about Lithium Sulfur experiments in the link
below) . . .


. . . and, in the other corner, decidedly liquid-based "flow" batteries, like the one described in this article. Although it may not be 100% accurate to describe them this way, I like to think of flow batteries as a closed loop fuel cell.

The ones I've read about before were based around vanadium and were much larger format than what you would find under the hood of a car (think railroad box car sized in some cases) and purposed for providing massive amounts of energy storage for field of solar panels or windmill farms . . .


That's the sort of thing that could turn wind and solar into a 24/7 energy source, thus moving us away from large coal/gas/nuclear power plants.

What described in Jim's article, though, seems to be something that dispenses with the vanadium and is scaled to "under the hood" size.

Not sure about the mysterious DBM battery from a few years ago, but it was rumored in some circle to be a flow battery of some sort (scroll down to the paragraph labeled "Driving Change" in the below link) . . .


If that's true, there's some precedent for using flow batteries for automotive traction purposes.

· · 4 years ago

Flow batteries are not new, and as Benjamin said, they are more of a fuel cell than a battery. The truth is that they have great potential to lower costs as stated in the article. However, there are also serious challenges in volume and weight that would have to be overcome to develop a flow battery to fit into a small car, and like a fuel cell, a flow battery will require a balance of plant which translates into more components which adds more complexity and reliability issues as compared to a battery. This is great news that these scientists have identified a theoretical path to developing a flow battery that could work in an automotive application, however as stated they are still at an early stage and hoping to just demonstrate that their version works as a single cell. Going from cell in the lab, to an entire stack with balance of plant would be another big step. The real question to ask is about their funding. Usually when scientists quote development timetables, they are estimating the best case scenarios where they are very well funded, which they almost never are. There is a fair bit of competition for government flow battery research money, and I don't see GE dumping billions of their own research and development money into this technology, the margins for automotive suppliers just aren't as attractive as the other things GE likes to spend their R and D money on. We also know that right now, a lot of money is continuing to be spent on battery research and we are seeing the improvements every few years. So the next question is that even if this team was well funded and could develop the technology in 6 years, would it still be competetive with where battery technology will be at this time.

· · 4 years ago

I have read about dozens seemingly very promising battery breakthroughs over the years but so far nothing as in 0% has ever resulted in a product. If Obama wants more EVs on the road he should create a taskforce to thoroughly investigate what ever happened to all those promising ideas, because the way things are going I have a hunch that no substantial breakthrough will ever hit production until the oil runs out.

· · 4 years ago

About 6 or 7 years ago a consortium was formed at MIT to develop a low cost laptop computer that could be deployed to school children in developing countries. The organization was called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and their initial product was the XO-1 laptop . . .


Early on, a stated goal was to be able to sell them for $100 each and it was also announced at that time that the machine - which had amazingly low power consumption - would be able to recharged with a built-in hand crank.

The XO-1 and it's OLPC parent organization had both assets and liabilities. The organization came under criticisms for how they oversaw deployment and - as to be expected on such a computer - there were some hardware/software issues. However, the XO-1 did establish some important milestones in regards to price point, durability and utility. It virtually launched the popularity of low price netbooks (no one had ever considered a sub $600 laptop before the XO-1, much less similarly inexpensive touchscreen tablets we have today,) it had an anti-glare screen that was quite amazing (auto makers who install rear view cameras with console displays should consider licensing that technology) and it was among the first devices to come with LiFePO4 batteries (Sony's cobalt-based lithium laptop batteries and their propensity to occasionally go up in flames was a hot news item of the day.)

Whenever journalists or pundits threw arrows at the XO-1, though, the criticisms that always seemed to pop up first was that it never was offered for a clean and even $100 (it got as low as around $180, which was still amazingly cheap for anything like this) and that it had a silly hand crank (which, if the misinformed critics who actually held the machine in there hands or kept up with developments would have observed, the hand crank idea got withdrawn years before the machine became available.) Hence, in their eyes, it was a failure before anything else - legitimate criticism or not - was advanced.

The reason I bring up all this old OLPC history here is because it's reminding me of some of the nay-saying I'm reading from posters above regarding EV batteries that are never going to happen, government funding into research that appears to be a waste and the prospect of nothing to have when all the oil is gone.

First, we're not in a peak oil mode any longer. The bad news there is that drilling technology has progressed to the point where we're able to extract from places like the Canadian tar sands and, if anything, the US is slated to become an oil EXPORTING nation for the first time in decades before too long, if that hasn't already occurred. None of this is particularly heartening news for EV enthusiasts or people who care for the environment, as the price of oil is - for the near term, at least - pretty stable (ie: people aren't going to flock to EVs simply because of petroleum prices) and (worse) it's a far filthier process to extract and refine this tar sand stuff into gasoline. But the old "peak oil" argument just isn't there like it was a few short years ago (we also don't have a "peak lithium" shortage, which is good news for us.)

As far as battery research goes, the folks who write press releases for these laboratories are damned if they do and damned if they don't. People are nervous when they hear nothing and think that the research money is being callously frittered away. Yet, when something is announced with a glimmer of hope and a stated timetable, they immediately declare that it's too far off, probably will never happen or it's too late to do any good. It's like the XO-1s unforgettable C note price point and make-believe hand crank all over again . . . the things people remember and measure everything else by.

Remember that government funding for battery research is something with a rather erratic history over the last 40 years . . . up in the 70s (Carter,) down for the 80s and early 90s (Reagan,) moving forward again in the 90's (Clinton,) slashed again in the early 2000s (Dubya,) before rebounding with real vigor that we haven't witnessed since the 70s just a few short years ago (Obama.)

Think, for a moment, where batteries were in 2009. They are better now than then. Perhaps not amazingly better, but certainly better . . . and this is the end product of research started in years when federal funding was barley there. The things that have been going on in laboratories that have the potential for game-changing technologies are only now - some 4 years later - starting to get their first slightly optimistic press releases. Some of the stuff is just now getting invented and might not get announced for a couple more years. Give it time, folks.

Getting back to what batteries we're going to see in the future that will transform the EV into something it's currently not . . . well, none of us have that particular crystal ball. Flow batteries are certainly interesting. But, as it's been already pointed out, they're mechanical devices and may end up losing out to simple foil pouches with just the right mixture of chemicals. I've got my money on (figuratively, if not in actuality) on the various solid state lithiums that are still being tested in labs in coin cell packages and will be scaled up to something more useful in another few years.

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