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Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Professor Earns $2 million Grant to Study Renewable Energy storage

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A professor at the University of Kansas School of Engineering has received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study improvements to storing energy from renewable power sources.

Trung Van Nguyen, professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, is leading the research project, along with four professors from three other universities around the country.
Trung Van Nguyen

The four-year NSF-funded project centers on designing a bigger, better battery to store the power generated from solar and wind energy for use when the source is not readily available or needed. Nguyen said it would also allow for more efficient use when green power is generated.

“The power grid is nothing but an electrical wire, it has no storage capability,” Nguyen said. “So basically, if you want to connect wind power to the grid, companies will accept only the most reliable, minimum source to avoid overloading the system. Anything above the minimum gets wasted, so if you have a storage system, you can keep that excess energy and distribute and sell more of it.”

At the heart of the research are improvements to the technology of a so-called “flow battery.” Nguyen said much of the technology currently in use was developed in the years after the first energy crisis in the 1970s and abandoned after oil and gas prices dropped in the 1980s.

Nguyen’s team is researching flow batteries that use the chemical elements hydrogen and bromine, which he said will allow significantly more battery storage capacity without a significant increase in the space occupied by the battery. Historically, to double the storage capacity for a battery, all parts must be added, essentially doubling the amount of space required. Nguyen said that’s not the case with this technology.

“It’s like an engine in a car,” Nguyen said. “The bigger the gasoline tank, the longer the car runs, but you don’t need to put in another engine along with a new gas tank if you want your car to run farther. You just need a bigger gas tank. But that’s currently what we do with conventional batteries.

“By storing the reactants externally, flow batteries separate power and energy requirements. As in a combustion engine system, the power is determined by the size of the engine and the energy is determined by the size of the fuel tank.”

The collaborative research project also shows KU’s strong position among the leaders in green energy research.

“The KU School of Engineering continues to be on the cutting edge of finding the best way to generate and use alternative energy sources,” said Dean of Engineering Stuart Bell. “We are proud of Dr. Nguyen for his leadership in this area and look forward to the continued success of his group through this important program.”

The team working on the regenerative hydrogen-bromine fuel cell energy storage system includes Eric McFarland and Horia Metiu from the University of California-Santa Barbara, Peter Pintauro from Vanderbilt University and Wei-Jen Lee from the University of Texas-Arlington.

Nguyen, who’s taught at KU for 17 years, took two years off from 2007 to 2009 to work at the National Science Foundation as program director for the Energy Sustainability Program. He said his time there helped him broaden his research focus and see the strengths of other institutions.

“I came back with a bigger world view and great contacts,” Nguyen said. “KU is a really good research institution, and we know we’re good, and those contacts help the university from getting overlooked on these types of projects.”

Although the grant is for four years, Nguyen said this is a decades long project that will require an investment from utility companies to ensure a successful transition from fossil fuels.

“My goal is to carry this project all the way to its implementation,” Nguyen said. “It’s an opportunity to create something useful for our national economic security and a global society.”

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