Researchers at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have identified a whole new class of high-performing organic molecules that’s inspired by vitamin B2. Your humble writer likes these posts about making new ideas from suggestions sourced in unrelated fields most of all.

The new high-performing organic molecules can safely store electricity from intermittent energy sources like solar and wind power in large batteries.

Harvard's Lab Bench Vitamin B2 Inspired Flow Battery. Image Credit: Credit: Kaixiang Lin at Harvard. Click image for the largest view.

Harvard’s Lab Bench Vitamin B2 Inspired Flow Battery. Image Credit: Kaixiang Lin at Harvard. Click image for the largest view.

This development builds on previous work in which the team developed a high-capacity flow battery that stored energy in organic molecules called quinones and a food additive called ferrocyanide. That advance was a game-changer, delivering the first high-performance, non-flammable, non-toxic, non-corrosive, and low-cost chemicals that could enable large-scale, inexpensive electricity storage.

While the versatile quinones show great promise for flow batteries, the Harvard researchers continued to explore other organic molecules in pursuit of even better performance. But finding that same versatility in other organic systems has been challenging.

Kaixiang Lin, a Ph.D. student at Harvard and first author of the paper said, “Now, after considering about a million different quinones, we have developed a new class of battery electrolyte material that expands the possibilities of what we can do. Its simple synthesis means it should be manufacturable on a large scale at a very low cost, which is an important goal of this project.”

The team’s research paper has been published in Nature Energy.

Flow batteries are different because they store energy in solutions in external tanks, thus the bigger the tanks, the more energy they can store.

Back in 2014, Michael J. Aziz, the Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Roy Gordon, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science, Alán Aspuru-Guzik, Professor of Chemistry and their team at Harvard replaced metal ions used as conventional battery electrolyte materials in acidic electrolytes with quinones, molecules that store energy in plants and animals.

The last year they developed a quinone that could work in alkaline solutions alongside a common food additive.

In this most recent research, the team found inspiration in vitamin B2, which helps to store energy from food in the body. The key difference between B2 and quinones is that nitrogen atoms, instead of oxygen atoms, are involved in picking up and giving off electrons.

Professor Aziz fills us in with, “With only a couple of tweaks to the original B2 molecule, this new group of molecules becomes a good candidate for alkaline flow batteries. They have high stability and solubility and provide high battery voltage and storage capacity. Because vitamins are remarkably easy to make, this molecule could be manufactured on a large scale at a very low cost.”

Professor Gordon, co-senior author of the paper explains the basis on how the team made the technological cross connection, “We designed these molecules to suit the needs of our battery, but really it was nature that hinted at this way to store energy. Nature came up with similar molecules that are very important in storing energy in our bodies.”

The team will continue to explore quinones, as well as this new universe of molecules, in pursuit of a high-performing, long-lasting and inexpensive flow battery.

Harvard’s Office of Technology Development is already working closely with the research team to navigate the shifting complexities of the energy storage market and build relationships with companies well positioned to commercialize the new chemistries.

Flow batteries have huge potential, not just for solar or wind storage because of the real advantage of low cost and low, if any, toxicity. The main issue is weight, and that is a matter in mind as research and development marches on. The physical characteristic that adds complexity is simply pumping the liquid electrolyte back and forth during the charge and discharge cycles.

Ultimately a battery is valued by its charge capacity vs size and weight. Applications ultimately determine the other properties that a specific battery must have. Flow batteries can have a very wide range of applications as size weight and capacity improve. Where the technology can get to in the future is really a wild guess. GO Harvard!!


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