Lockheed Martin’s new flow battery could boost renewable energy

The American aerospace company, Lockheed Martin has announced plans to launch a new flow battery made of inexpensive, nontoxic materials.

The company hopes to launch the flow battery within a year, which could help utilities save money and use more renewable energy.

“You open up a chance not only to make renewables more marketable and more useful, you might even change the structure of at least a portion of the utility market,” Leo Mackay, a senior vice president for sustainability and ethics at Lockheed, told reporters at the company’s Global Vision Center in Virginia.

Utilities have always had to rely on large power plants for generating electricity during peak hours. Mackay said flow batteries could eventually help utilities become less centralised and more site-specific.

Flow batteries, which use chemicals dissolved in water, last longer than lithium ion batteries, which are usually solid. That means they can help utilities meet consumer needs for longer periods during so-called peak demand times such as evenings, when residents use lights, televisions and kitchen appliances.

Unlike natural gas or coal, which can be burned anytime to generate power, wind and solar power are sometimes most active when consumer demand is down. Affordable storage of power from renewables could help the industry grow faster, but has long been elusive.

Frank Armijo, vice president for energy initiatives, said the company is developing a so-called flow battery using proprietary electrolyte chemistry that combines low cost earth metals with chemicals that are also inexpensive.

“The challenge with existing flow batteries is that they lean heavily on materials like vanadium and zinc bromide which are extremely expensive and toxic,” Armijo said. “Ours is neither of that.”

Armijo said flow batteries could last six to 10 hours compared to about two to four hours for lithium ion batteries. In addition, flow batteries do not have rapid degradation issues that lithium ion has.

Lockheed, which has been developing advanced battery technologies for its space program for decades, is competing with other companies in the race to develop batteries for grid storage including Tesla and LG Chem.