Among the most promising batteries for grid storage of renewable energy are "flow" batteries, because it's relatively simple to scale their tanks, pumps and pipes to the sizes needed to handle large capacities of energy. The new lithium-polysulfide flow battery developed by Cui's group has a simplified, less expensive design that presents a potentially viable solution for large-scale production.
Today's flow batteries pump two different liquids through an interaction chamber where dissolved molecules undergo chemical reactions that store or give up energy. The chamber contains a membrane that only allows ions not involved in reactions to pass between the liquids while keeping the active ions physically separated. This battery design has two major drawbacks: the high cost of liquids containing rare materials such as vanadium – especially in the huge quantities needed for grid storage – and the membrane, which is also very expensive and requires frequent maintenance.
The new Stanford/SLAC battery design uses only one stream of molecules and does not need a membrane at all. Its molecules mostly consist of the relatively inexpensive elements lithium and sulfur, which interact with a piece of lithium metal coated with a barrier that permits electrons to pass without degrading the metal. When discharging, the molecules, called lithium polysulfides, absorb lithium ions; when charging, they lose them back into the liquid. The entire molecular stream is dissolved in an organic solvent, which doesn't have the corrosion issues of water-based flow batteries.