Yesterday morning Harvard University released a press release about as breathless as that patrician school's news offices get. It passed my eyes as I was scanning through the NSF's science360 press release and news aggregation service, yesterday morning. It features the b-word that rhymes with make-do and which is normally verboten at respectable publications unless referring to something that history has already demonstratably shown to merit the accolade or that is something we need but haven't yet got. Normally I'd put this handout at the bottom of a post in the bin I call Grist for the Mill. But this one is not only dramatic, it reads convincingly enough to make one think…maybe. So it leads off:
- Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences press release: Organic mega flow battery promises breakthrough for renewable energy/ Harvard technology could economically store energy for use when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine; It even has a pic (above, purloined) of the lead author of the paper, a letter in Nature, that got this ball rolling. One cannot imagine a better realization of the Hollywood director mind's-eye version of a scientist: white coat, big glasses, slightly manic grin, and a tidy lab bench with nifty-looking gadgets on it.
The release is so emphatic. There was no way, even on a topic as arcane as electrochemistry, that it would not make a media splash. The gist is in that release headline: a new battery chemistry, devised after exhaustive search and modeling of possible candidates from about 10,000 variants, appears pretty cheap to manufacture. Even better variants may yet emerge. It has no requirement for rare earths or other costly metals. Already tested on the bench, the "flow battery" is a little like a fuel cell in that tanks full of the requisite, anion and cation and electrolytic electron stuff – in waterbased solutions – will be tapped to feed the goodies through the reaction cells where current will flow from cheap carbon electrodes. Refillable external tanks means that the proposed systems can be huge.
Perhaps most alluring of all the writer of the release. looks like it is Paul Karoff in the news office, thought to include specific example of the sorts of places where nature already provides the key ingredients, called quinones. In plants. Specifically rhubarb, the fleshy, leafy green with red stems. Its metabolic pathways include a quinone very much like the one written up in the paper. That puts this over the top. Rhubarbs to rescue us from a carbon heat death? Sort of. Another bonus bona fides that implies this is legit story material to go ga-ga over is that a big wad of money came from the DOE's ARPA-E operation. Furthermore, the Nature News & Views article analyzing the paper is by a General Electric Co. expert who declared this about the same thing as a b-through: a "major advance." Man, even a private sector mega-corporation top guy says wow.
The letter itself is a heavyweight. Reporters who looked at the raw material might be impressed (and no reporter doing this story should have done so without looking at the letter itself). It, too, uses the rhubarb example, so that is not just press agent fluffery. Plus, a quick scan of the letter suggests this is work by a pretty wizardly bunch. For example:
… the total free energies of molecules were obtained from first-principal quantum chemical calculations within density functional theory at the level of the generalized gradient approximation (GGA) using the PBE functional. Three-dimensional conformer structures for each quinone/hydroquinone molecule were generated using the Chem Axon suite with up to 25 generated conformers per molecule using the Dreiding force field. Generated conformers were used as input structures for the density functional theory geometry optimization employed for determining the formation energy, which in turn is used to evaluate the reduction potential.
Got it. Anyway… Hmm. I wonder how many executives at Chinese tech companies just ordered up a big quinone flow battery asap with no regard to patents. I also wonder how many news accounts, emboldened by a Harvard press release, used the word breakthrough:
- NYTimes – Matthew Wald: From Harvard, a Cheaper Storage Battery ; 3rd graf: "the breakthrough came in the type of materials used to store the energy …" Wald got some reaction from outside the paper's authorship, but all are in agencies closely involved.
- MIT Technology Review – Kevin Bullis: New Battery Material Could Help Wind and Solar Power Go Big ; No b-word that I see, but quite enthusiastic. An outside source says one big requirement is that further work confirm that such batteries will be able to work for years on end without major, costly maintenance. Also welcome here: brief mention of other teams working on low cost flow batteries.
- Sydney Morning Herald – Pater Hannam: New low-cost, high-energy batteries could be powered by rhubarb, plants ; Uhm, not really. First through was that the headline writers misconstrued the news. But no, the story says green plants could be the source of the materials. The letter's abstract says however that if this proves out "the organic anthraquinone species can be synthesized from inexpensive commodity chemicals." That means to me they'll be made from scratch, not from pulverized vegetables.
- E&T Magazine (UK) Tereza Pultarova: Metal-free flow battery to revolutionise renewable grids ; Yep, not only revolutionary but an "important breakthrough." Looks like an entirely, or nearly so, press release-sourced account.
- Register (UK) Richard Chirgwin: Boffins claim battery BREAKTHROUGH – with rhubarb-like molecule ; A responsible job, really. It atrributes 'breakthrough' to the source. It links to both the release and to the letter abstract.
- Science NOW – Robert F. Service: 'Rhubarb' Battery Could Store Energy of Future ; A cautious, but encouraging, account with several caveats that stand between today and energy nirvana rhubarb pie.
- IEEE Spectrum – Dave Levitan: "Rhubarb" Flow Battery Could Bolster Renewables Storage ; Levttan breaks into his own voice to write, "The rhubarb-flow battery – a name I strongly encourage the creators to adopt – is still likely years from commercialization…"
- E&E Greenwire – Katherine Ling: Rhubarb molecules emergein study as cheap battery backup for renewables ; Derived largely, perhaps entirely, from the handout materials and the paper – but without any overheated language. Sober report from a sober news service.
- NatureNews – Mark Peplow: Cheap battery stores energy for a rainy day / Quinone could make flow-battery technology competitive with current storage methods ; Obvious as it is to have ought'a checked Nature News in the first place, it didn't happen. My oversight – and the post missed a good bet right out of the gate. Peplow tamps down the hype. He instead calmly explains how quinones and hydroquinones makes electricity without expensive raw materials in their manufacture.Also mentioned is that the system does have its awkward aspects such as use of corrosive bromine chemistry. Included is a useful schematic of a flow battery's operation.
- Christian Science Monitor – David J. Unger: Clean energy storage on the cheap in new flow battery ; Unger had the gumption to call Prof. Aziz and get a few nuggets straight from the source. Also here are the calculated costs – in pennies – of standard vanadium-based flow batteries vs. what flow batteries can do per kWh of storage.
- BBC – Paul Rincon: Battery advance could boost renewable energy take-up ; Could be a game-changer, Rincon writes, which is wisely well short of the press release's flat declaration that a breakthrough has occurred.