Jay Whitacre’s New & Cheap Sodium-Ion Batteries Funded by DOE


Jay Whitacre

Storage methods for renewable energy sources like solar and wind have been discussed lately, anticipating the closing electric car future, and an electricity-oriented lifestyle. The problem with storage systems (batteries) is that they’re made up of toxic/rare materials, which makes them expensive and non-feasible.

Jay Whitacre, a professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon Unversity, has founded a company called 44 Tech, based in Pittsburg, PA, that is set to develop Sodium-Ion batteries – with a working principle similar to lithium ion batteries in many aspects, but much cheaper. Actually, 44 Tech has already received $5 million from the DOE, as part of the 2009 Recovery Act, supporting Whitacre’s project.

Sodium is several orders of magnitude more available than lithium, and that makes it cheaper to use in batteries. Taking into account the destination of the projected batteries, to act like a buffer for storing renewable electricity, low voltages are enough, so making the technology cheaper by using a water-based electrolyte wasn’t hard to think of. Smaller li-ion batteries, like that in your electric car, are using organic electrolytes.

“In principle, a sodium-ion system can be low-cost, and with aqueous electrolytes, it could be really low-cost,” says Jeff Dahn, a professor of physics and chemistry at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Though scientists have experimented with sodium ion batteries in the past, they couldn’t make them effective enough because they were using organic electrolytes and high voltages.

Still, 44 Tech’s researchers are studying the possibility of making the sodium ion batteries not only for large storage necessities, but also for compact ones, using organic electrolytes: I hope [the] DOE funds the nonaqueous work, too,” says Dahn.

Since the DOE got involved in this kind of research, it’s clear that the government is making steps towards a future less powered with petrol and more with other renewables.

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