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Grant Will Help Professor Develop Battery to Aid Home Energy Use

Friday, 28 September 2012 10:23 CDT

Research by a University of Kansas School of Engineering professor has the potential to reduce stress on the nation’s strained power grid and increase energy savings for consumers.

Trung Van Nguyen, professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, is leading an effort to develop a durable, low-cost battery capable of gathering power at off-peak hours and storing it for use during times of high demand.

Nguyen has partnered with researchers from Vanderbilt University and Lawrence-based fuel cell research and development business TVN Systems Inc. on a three-year, $1.72 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) of the U.S. Department of Energy. The project is one of 19 transformative new projects that will receive a total of $43 million in funding from ARPA-E to leverage the nation’s brightest scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to develop breakthrough energy storage technologies and support promising small businesses.

This grant seeks to transition energy storage technology from the laboratory to industry and builds on new knowledge and materials that were discovered through a $2 million National Science Foundation grant Nguyen and other collaborators received in 2010 to develop flow battery technologies.

Nguyen’s efforts focus on meeting two key areas for improvement identified by the Department of Energy. The first is to develop a system that allows the current electrical grid to more fully utilize renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, especially wind.

“Wind is a very variable source of energy and cannot be hooked to the electrical grid. It just can’t handle that type of fluctuation. It would cause the system to overload. So the only way for us to deploy more wind is to deploy some type of storage. If our approach works, it would satisfy that,” Nguyen said.

Prof. Trung Nguyen and researchersResearchers associated with the ARPA-E grant gather before a conference call with additional members working on the project. From left to right: Regis Dowd, first-year doctoral student; Pau Ying Chong, V.P. of TVN Systems; Trung Van Nguyen, Reid Heffner from ARPA-E; Guangyu Lin, lead PI from TVN Systems; Jack Walter, undergraduate research student; Venkata Yarlagadda, second-year doctoral student.

The Energy Department also has identified energy storage at the community and residential level as a key goal. Nguyen’s team is researching a battery that could be manufactured for use in households for around $1,000.

The battery would be installed during new home construction or major renovation.

The idea is to safely enclose it in a 3-foot by 3-foot strongbox and then bury it in the ground. It would be self-contained and could store enough charge to last about four hours while creating no waste or byproducts.

“You could take in electricity at night when it’s less expensive and store it to power your home during times when power usage is at its peak,” Nguyen said. “If every home could do that, you lower peak power demands and reduce the strain on the electrical grid. It would also provide homeowners with backup in times of power outages, such as severe weather.”

Nguyen’s team must deal with the challenges of keeping the battery stable and reliable. Team members are employing innovative technology to develop a membrane that prevents chemicals inside the battery from mixing, which could cause it to short out. The team also is utilizing a new method to develop a catalyst that can withstand the powerful chemicals inside the battery and keep it functional for years.

“This two-pronged approach is one of the things that makes our project so attractive. If one system fails, there’s still another method in place to keep the system running,” Nguyen said.

The ARPA-E grant spans three years, but researchers must reach certain goals within the first 12 months to receive funding for the second and third years.

“In that first year, we have to prove that this new membrane material can do its job. We have to prove that this new catalyst can do its job in terms of activity and stability. If we pass that first year, then we move to phase two, which is to develop a prototype from a single cell all the way to the full system,” Nguyen said. “We are confident we can deliver and look forward to the challenge.”

Nguyen’s team is set to officially receive the grant and begin work on the project Oct. 1.