NASA Battery Technology Is Powering Up the Grid of the Future

Credit: IEEE Spectrum

Technologies for space are designed to be tough, safe, and long-lasting. Nickel-hydrogen batteries, he says, can last for 30,000 charge cycles, is fireproof, and outperforms lithium-ion batteries on a number of key metrics for energy storage at the large scale.

Durable Battery

  • “[It’s] the most durable battery ever invented,” says Jorg Heinemann.
  • Heinemann is CEO of EnerVenue, a Fremont, California-based nickel-hydrogen battery manufacturer. “Our cost is comparable to where lithium-ion is going, and we use earth-abundant materials,” he says.
  • “Nickel is the most expensive thing we use. We operate at a ninety percent round-trip efficiency, more efficient than lithium-ion. And there’s basically no maintenance on this battery, it was designed for sending up on a rocket ship into outer space.”

Nickel-hydrogen batteries can run for tens of thousands of cycles, giving them a life of over 30 years.

Space Applications

  • A new 92,900 square-meter gigafactory is nearing completion in Kentucky, set to produce up to five gigawatt-hours’ worth of batteries annually.
  • The factory’s goal is to reach a full capacity of 20 GWh of cells per year, significantly boosting battery production.
  • These batteries are of the nickel-hydrogen variety, featuring a unique design with electrodes in a pressurized gas tank, using nickel hydroxide as the cathode and hydrogen as the anode.
  • They were originally designed in the 1970s for space applications due to their longevity, with a lifespan of over 30 years and the ability to endure tens of thousands of cycles.
  • The introduction of an inexpensive nickel-molybdenum-cobalt alloy catalyst, costing $20/kg, has expanded their potential beyond space applications.

Newest-Generation Batteries

Cui helped launch EnerVenue in 2020 and is now the startup’s Chairman and Chief Technology Officer. The company’s newest-generation batteries revealed in early September are 6-foot-long, 6-inch-wide tanks with an energy capacity of 3kWh, Heinemann says.

“I call it the barbecue test. We take the battery, put it in an open fire, and watch it continue to heat up.” says Jorg Heinemann, EnerVenue

The use of a pressurized vessel for nickel-hydrogen batteries may raise concerns, but these batteries have highly stable reactions. Hydrogen buildup in the tank only reaches about 5 percent of typical hydrogen fuel cell pressures.

Battery Chemistry

If pressure exceeds the maximum, it triggers hydrogen recombination into water, eliminating the risk of thermal runaway seen in lithium-ion batteries, which can lead to uncontrolled heat buildup and fires.

“I call it the barbecue test,” Heinemann says. “We take the battery, put it in an open fire, and watch it continue to heat up. What ends up happening is that the pressure above top charge will force the hydrogen back into water. And then we have a release valve designed into the unit so at a predesigned pressure and temperature that will release, and you’ll get a steam vent.” Another advantage is that the battery chemistry works across a wide temperature range of -40 to 60°C.

“Like many early-stage technologies, EnerVenue’s nickel-hydrogen batteries currently cost more than lithium-ion batteries,” says Aaron Marks, an energy storage technology analyst at Wood Mackenzie.

“Once the technology reaches scale, it will help make the entire technology landscape better and cheaper just by virtue of providing real competition,” Marks says.

“Our mission,” says Heinemann, “Is to become the number one provider of stationary storage serving power plants, businesses and homes globally.”

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Source : IEEE Spectrum