WPI professor’s flow battery could take solar to next level

Professor Yan Wang wins award for flow battery innovationA Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor received a prestigious award and $40,000 grant to continue his research in energy storage innovation that could revolutionize the solar power industry.

Professor Yan Wang received the 2012 Catalyst Award from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center for his work with flow batteries.

Flow batteries typically use an electrolyte solution that flows through an electrochemical cell that converts chemical energy to electricity. Wang’s innovation replaces the electrolyte solution with thick suspensions containing particles of nickel and zinc.  The different solution allows Wang to dramatically increase the concentration of electrically active material in the solutions. “The average density can be as much as 10 times higher,” Wang said. “And it can store 10 times as much energy.”

Beyond that, Wang’s suspensions also serve as the battery’s anode and cathode, which simplifies the design, makes it more compact and cuts back on projected manufacturing costs. Wang said packaging can make up as much as 50 percent of a standard flow battery’s volume and a chunk of change.

Wang has always been interested in energy storage and has spent his life, since he was an undergraduate, researching batteries.  He believes energy storage is the key to advancing solar energy and other renewable alternatives sources of power.  “We have to be able to store energy after we generate it,” he said.

With solar power being an intermittent energy source, the only way to adopt it more widely is to find a way to store the energy for use after the sun goes down, Wang said.

The primary barrier to using energy storage in conjunction with solar power generation now is cost.  “The most important thing is cost,” Wang said. “Right now storage costs $500 to $1,000 a kilowatt hour. Our technology can offer a much lower price.”

Wang said his flow batteries, with their higher concentration, more compact size and longer life, could cost as little as $100 per kilowatt hour, which moves energy storage into a more realistic space.  Wang said the university is working to help him find a corporate partner who will take the technology to commercialization