Energy Storage

Battery Technology Used in Outer Space Could Be a Gamechanger on Earth

Lithium-ion has become the dominant battery technology used in energy storage applications around the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only, or even the best, technology available. Many companies are working on different battery chemistries that could provide safer, longer-lasting, and ultimately more cost-effective options.

One alternative that has gotten little exposure until now is a battery chemistry with a 30-plus-year history of successful operation. It’s a metal-hydrogen battery, which has been used by NASA on space missions, including in the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Curiosity rover, and the International Space Station.

“[The battery was] designed for a use case where these aerospace satellites and so forth needed a battery that would withstand the harsh climate of outer space, meaning super high temperatures, super low temperatures, and then have basically an infinite cycle life and require no maintenance,” Jorg Heinemann, CEO of EnerVenue, said as a guest on The POWER Podcast.

“They worked very successfully with over 30,000 cycles—30,000 cycles is like charging the battery and discharging it three times per day for 30 years,” he said. For the sake of comparison, Heinemann said the longest lasting lithium-ion batteries can handle about 3,000 cycles, about one-tenth the cycle life.

The metal-hydrogen battery contains no toxic materials, and unlike lithium-ion technology, it has no fire risk. “There are no safety issues. It’s a really safe device. There’s no thermal runaway risk, which is the primary concern with lithium-ion. Our battery operates in a very broad—what I call a ‘happy’—temperature range,” Heinemann said.

Specifically, EnerVenue’s battery has been proven to operate reliably in ambient temperatures from –40F to +140F. That means, whether in artic or desert conditions, it doesn’t require large-scale heating and air conditioning systems, which can be expensive and maintenance-intensive.

Cost has been the main reason metal-hydrogen chemistry has not been more fully developed for use on Earth. The batteries used in space were very expensive, costing as much as $20,000/kWh, according to Heinemann. However, about two years ago, EnerVenue’s founder, Yi Cui, a professor at Stanford University who was leading a research lab focused on materials innovations for sustainability, came up with a new set of materials to replace the high-cost elements.

“It uses Earth-abundant materials—nothing but—there’s nothing that is either rare or problematic. There’s no lithium, no cobalt, no platinum-group metals. It’s just Earth-abundant stuff that you can find virtually on every continent,” Heinemann said. Which means, the cost has come way down, and the kicker is, it even performs better.

“We believe that we can match the cost trajectory for lithium-ion battery packs, which is going to continue to go down over time based on the scale effects,” he said. “We can match their CAPEX [capital expenditure expense], and then, we can give the customer a significantly better value proposition in terms of the capabilities of the battery, especially the high temperature range, the durability, the flexibility, and a very significant economic savings because of the fact that there’s no maintenance costs associated with this battery. It’s basically an install-and-forget battery.”

Metal-hydrogen batteries are not particularly well-suited for mobile applications, such as electric vehicles or cellphones, so for now, EnerVenue’s target market is the utility-scale energy storage sector. “Our battery is really good for a super broad range of stationary uses,” he said.

To learn more about EnerVenue and its battery technology, listen to the full interview with Heinemann on The POWER Podcast. Follow the links below to subscribe via your favorite platform or click on the SoundCloud player to listen now:

For more power podcasts, visit The POWER Podcast archives.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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