Since moving to Groningen, Jack has shown a curiosity for how the worlds of energy and science intertwine. The perfect crossover seems to be offered by the idea of energy storage; that is, how the energy we use in our every day lives is stored. Jack went to talk to one of his professors to really get to know the different techniques and their limitations.
From spending my first year in Groningen I can already say that I’ve learned a lot, from learning about other cultures, the stresses involved with moving abroad and about Chemistry in particular. There’s a lot more to the subject than I originally thought and as I delve deeper things certainly start to become more interesting. One problem for which Chemistry could provide a solution, is that of energy storage. After learning a little more about the possibilities in one of my lectures, I sought out my lecturer – Dr Edwin Otten – to ask him a few more questions related to the topic.
The first thing I was curious about was whether or not energy storage on a large scale is similar to the batteries we all use in day to day life; for example the one in the device you’re using to read this. The answer is yes. Referred to as solid state batteries, these batteries run on the transfer of charged particles between a positively charged point and a negatively charged point. However, there are dangers associated with taking this to a large scale. Having a large interface allows the production of a lot more electricity but also more danger; I’m sure we’ve all heard the horror stories of the exploding mobile phones, I can only imagine the chaos of this at a larger scale. Another alternative he highlighted was referred to as a redox flow battery. This kind of battery would run in a similar way but with separation between 2 solutions, making it safer should something go wrong. In addition to this he told me that it is potentially possible to store energy in chemical bonds, while too complicated to go into detail here, it essentially involves the liberation of hydrogen from certain molecules which in turn releases energy.
Given that we have so many different methods, I was curious to know more about the limitations associated with each one. He was quick to tell me that storage density was the biggest issue for all methods. As previously stated, with the solid state batteries, once they are produced on a larger scale they also become more dangerous should something go wrong. In redox flow batteries, the solvents included can often be involved in side reactions which can complicate the procedure. For those who may be lost, an example of a solvent in action is adding salt to water, in which the water acts a solvent. This allows the particles involved in the energy storage to exist in solution and not as solids. How do these limitations affect the transition to a sustainable future? According to Edwin, one of the problems associated with renewable energies is their intermittent availability. That is, these energies are not always available, for example on a winter evening with no sun, solar panels become useless; in contrast with a clear sky on a summer day. Energy grids are not designed for these fluctuations and to completely rely on renewable methods means better technologies of energy storage must be developed.
When I then asked about future developments, I didn’t expect quite as much of an ironic answer. He told me about a documentary he had seen in which some oil fields in Qatar were being powered by solar energy. So in essence, renewable energies are being used to dig for fossil fuels; not quite the transition we’ve been hoping for. He was quick to add that in these parts of the world, where sun is regular and expected, solar energy is infact already cheaper than in other parts of the world such as the Netherlands. The unpredictability in the weather adds an extra layer of difficulty to our energy problems.
The lack of a definitive method of energy storage definitely poses a problem, however as an aspiring scientist it could also hold a lot of potential. Right now, there’s a lot of new research going into this topic as it not yet know which path is likely to lead to success, nonetheless Edwin did assure me that new energy storage techniques would be “one of the key technologies going forward”. A lot of the work into building a sustainable future has already been done by previous generations, with promising progress expected in the coming years as Kees Hummelen previous informed me. Finding that perfect solution to energy storage is a problem for today, a problem that one of us may get to solve.