Scientists at the CSIRO have developed an UltraBattery that unites a supercapacitor and a lead acid battery inside a single cell, creating a hybrid high powered charge and discharge device that boasts a life cycle at least four times longer and 50 per cent more powerful than conventional battery systems.
The UltraBattery was designed primarily for use in hybrid electric vehicles, but could also solve the major problem of intermittency in energy taken from renewable sources like wind and solar farms by "smoothing out" the flow of energy fed into the grid.
The CSIRO believes this problem of variations in wind and solar energy output is a fundamental roadblock to the widespread uptake of renewable energy resources. The UltraBattery's potential to solve this dilemma could see more IT companies with large server farms and data centre's turn to wind generated power.
"Wind energy has a problem; speed variation and intermittency. The energy stored for renewable applications is [currently] mainly lead acid batteries, but a problem is the actual life of the lead acid battery is usually shorter than what they [manufacturers] claim because of this uncertainty of wind energy, and the variations in wind energy that make the battery fail quicker," said Dr Lan Trieu Lam, CSIRO Energy Technology project manager and key scientist in the UltraBattery's development.
"With the UltraBattery, we have integrated the lead acid battery and the supercapacitor into one unit cell. The benefit is you don't need the expensive electronic controller and complicated algorithms to switch power between the battery and the supercapacitor, it will do it by itself," Lam said.
Supercapacitors can take and discharge high levels of power but no energy, while lead acid batteries can provide longer energy but deplete too fast after high output. The UltraBattery unites the best of both worlds.
"Because we build the supercapacitor inside the UltraBattery, it can provide and receive high power from the wind and protect the lead acid battery, therefore enhancing the life of the battery," Lam said.
Field tests are currently underway in wind farms at the CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle to compare the technology against conventional lead acid batteries. A company, Smart Storage, has been setup to commercialise the UltraBattery over the next 12 -18 months.
Mark Squires, CSIRO Energy Group business development manager and director of Smart Storage, believes the cost of the UltraBattery could drop to the same price as current lead acid offerings.
"But the major benefit is the extended life of them; they are predicting about a four times longer lifetime. The capital costs might either be the same or marginally more expensive, but you get that back through the extended lifetime," Squires said.
He said the major benefits of the UltraBattery in a wind farm setting are that it assures network owners a steady flow of energy by temporarily storing wind power coming in and feeding it smoothly back into the grid, eliminating what is referred to as "noise" caused by uneven wind flow.
"There are penalties that get incurred onto wind farm owners because of that noisiness, so that is one financial benefit. Another is that it leads to a greater attraction to wind farms," he said.
Other applications of the technology could be in remote area power systems on islands or in the outback, where regular amounts of energy and longer lasting batteries are required.
The UltraBattery's application in the automotive industry is already underway, with a manufacturing arrangement currently in process and about a year or so from commercialisation. A wind farm application of the technology, however, is a little further behind.
"We can prove that it has worked and is highly suitable for wind farms," Squires said. "The next 12 - 18 months is [about] really testing and making sure it performs as well as we hope it will, and then we'll be looking to commercialise it in the true sense of the word."
According to the CSIRO, further research is aiming to improve the UltraBattery's technology, making it lighter and more efficient.