Stanford engineers have developed low-cost urea batteries. A new high-performance battery that could provide a low-cost storage solution for solar energy, which is abundant during the day but must be stored for use at night.
A battery with urea, an element commonly found in fertilizers and mammalian urine, could provide us with a cheap way to store energy produced through renewable sources, a challenge today.
Developed by Stanford chemistry professor Hongjie Dai and doctoral student Michael Angell, the battery is nonflammable and contains electrodes made of graphite and aluminum. The main component of its electrolytes is urea, which is industrially produced by the ton in fertilizer plants. I mean, it’s very cheap.
“So basically what you have is a battery made from some of the cheapest and most abundant materials that we can find on earth. And it really works well,” said Dai.
In 2015, Dai’s lab was the first to make a rechargeable battery from aluminum. This system charges in less than a minute and lasts for thousands of charge and discharge cycles. The laboratory collaborates with Taiwan Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) for the battery of an electric motorcycle with this version. However, that version of the battery had a major drawback: it involved an expensive electrolyte.
The latest version includes a urea-based electrolyte, about 100 times cheaper than the 2015 model, with higher efficiency and a charging time of 45 minutes. It is the first time that urea has been used in a battery. According to Dai, the cost difference between the two batteries is “like night and day.”
Renewable energy storage.
Unlike energy derived from fossil fuels, solar energy can essentially only be harnessed when the sun is shining. If that energy is not consumed immediately, it is lost as heat. As the demand for renewable technologies grows, so does the need for cheap and efficient batteries to store energy and harness it at night. Today’s batteries, such as lithium or lead, are expensive and have a limited life.
This new battery could provide a solution to the storage problem.
“Its cheap. Is efficient. The storage network is the main target,” said Angell.
According to Angell, the storage network is also the most realistic goal, due to its low cost, high efficiency and long life cycle.
Although also efficient, lithium-ion batteries commonly used in small electronics and other devices can be flammable. On the contrary, the urea battery is not flammable and therefore presents fewer risks.
A commercial version of the battery is currently under development.