Technological civilization runs on energy. Second only to health care in economic clout, energy accounts for slightly less than 10% of GDP depending on the actual fuel prices. Everything depends on energy, even the biological world inside and around us.
Energy is a cost component in all goods and services, from manufacturing to overhead and transportation. As such, the price and availability of energy is a major determinant of all price levels and, inversely, the standard of living.
The cost of power generation is not the only aspect of energy that we should be paying attention to, as members of the human race and as investors. In this article, I’m going to ask you to consider the financial impact of power availability and its many implications. At this point, this may be confusing, but all will become clear shortly.
Traditionally, most electrical power has been consumed as it is produced. This isn’t because scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs haven’t wanted the ability to store energy, separating its generation and its use. They do.
The inability to story electrical energy is a serious burden because it means that power plants must be large enough to handle peak demand even though they operate far below capacity most of the time. There would be significant savings if power could be cost-effectively stockpiled. For one, generating capacity, maintenance, and overhead could then be reduced.
Unfortunately, electrical energy storage is hard, meaning expensive. While most media attention has focused on the supply side of electrical power, the development of storage technologies may prove to be just as important. One impact of a solution would particularly benefit the solar-energy industry. The lack of an inexpensive electrical storage technology is a major obstacle to the widespread use of solar and other renewable energy sources.
Compared to other associated technologies, the science of batteries has seriously lagged. Your television and phone have undergone radical transformations over the last few decades. Batteries have not, yet.
Modern batteries work well enough to power your devices, but that’s not what I’m talking about. We need batteries that will store large amounts of power inexpensively and give it back without significant losses repeatedly. Think big, efficient rechargeables.
Cheap reliable storage of electrical power would have huge impacts on the energy economy. For that reason, progress in that area should be of acute interest to transformational investors. Later in this article, I’m going to tell you about a potentially game-changing technology that completely rethinks batteries, turning away from traditional metal-based batteries to replicate biological processes that take place inside every cell in your body.
Various important academic research groups are pursuing this biomimetic breakthrough. We don’t yet know if there will be a way to invest directly in this new battery technology, which I’ll review shortly, but it’s clear which sector stands to benefit most from a quantum leap in battery technologies. It’s solar energy.
The Grid Parity Tipping Point
For many people, solar energy is akin to spiritual or political goals. While I don’t share this perspective, it’s not surprising that humans have romanticized photosynthesis. The energy that runs plant metabolisms falls on them, like manna, from out of the sky. Historically, animals have had it much harder, consuming solar energy indirectly either by eating a lot of plant material or eating other animals that have eaten plants.
Tool-using humans have it even harder. We must search out, harvest, and stockpile the energy used to run technological society. The quest to cut out the energy middleman, by emulating plants’ ability to capture and store power from the sun, has been going on since the rise of industrial society.
The first solar or photovoltaic cell was created in 1839 by 19-year-old French whiz kid Edmond Becquerel. Young Edmond put silver chloride in an acidic solution connected with platinum electrodes. When hit by sunlight, the device generated voltage. The Paris lab where his experiment took place, incidentally, was built by his father, Antoine César Becquerel, who is also remembered for his work with electricity and batteries.
Edmond’s path-breaking solar cell captured only a tiny fraction of the power in sunlight. Today, we can make much more efficient photovoltaics that capture and covert 25% of the photons hitting a cell into electricity. This is near the theoretical limit of crystalline solar-cell efficiency.
The cost of these super-efficient cells, however, makes them impractical except for those willing to pay very high prices for energy. NASA, for example, uses photovoltaics worth their weight in gold. While the cost of the power generated by these cells is extremely high, there is no cheaper way to provide electricity to satellites. Similarly, remote terrestrial locations may also find that conventional photovoltaics are the least expensive power option.
The off-the-grid market is interesting, but electricity from photovoltaic power is more expensive than power from the grid for most of us. This limits the total size of the solar-cell market to subsidized and ideologically driven uses. Moreover, the level of subsidies that have encouraged solar-energy growth has fallen significantly and will continue to fall. When solar cells can provide electricity at prices comparable to local power companies, however, photovoltaic technologies will have reached an important economically valid tipping point.
Thanks to discoveries made by nanotech researchers at Rice University and elsewhere, a new generation of photovoltaics is on track to provide electrical power at costs similar to those charged by power companies, at least in the parts of the United States that are closer to the equator. This is the grid parity tipping point, and it will signal a new phase in the solar-energy industry.
At that point, consumers in Florida, Texas, California, and elsewhere will be able to install and harness solar cells for the same amount of money they would otherwise pay the power company. There is, however, a cloud over this sunny scenario. It is, well, clouds. And night.
Grid parity is not enough for consumers to free themselves from the grid. To become energy independent as individuals, we need a continuous supply of electricity. Photovoltaics work and will soon work even better due to nanotech advances, including quantum dots. Solar arrays only work, though, when the sun is shining.
To deal with the hours, days, or longer when insufficient solar energy is making it to the ground, we need a way to store collected solar energy efficiently and inexpensively. Today, you can install a system of batteries able to store solar power and provide electricity for continuous extended use. Unfortunately, it will cost more than the solar arrays that power it. There’s reason to believe, however, that this will change in the next few years.
Organic Flow Batteries
Batteries employ one of the central concepts of both biology and chemistry, known as redox. Redox, if you’re not yet familiar with the concept, is the transfer of electrons from molecules that give up electrons (oxidation) to molecules that take them (reduction). We control that flow of electrons to generate an electrical current.
Existing batteries employ two charged metals as a medium for electron transfer. The metals used in batteries are not only expensive, they can be quite toxic and very difficult to properly dispose of. This is ironic because the current generation of solar cells uses high-temperature, vapor-deposition manufacturing processes that create particularly toxic wastes. Metallic batteries are also a significant source of pollutants. While there is debate about whether the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuels is pollution or plant food, a current-technology solar setup with batteries poses undeniable environmental challenges.
The next generation of photovoltaics, however, will be a major improvement in solar-cell manufacturing’s waste stream as well as their efficiency. Now we see the emergence of a new battery technology that could do the same for energy storage.
The new development I’d like to bring to your attention is that of “organic flow batteries.” If it fulfills its promise, the combination of these two technologies could lead to massive and beneficial impacts, as well as major investment opportunities.
Learning from Nature
Often, when smart researchers hit a wall, they reassess their lack of progress and ask the theoretical question made famous by Albert Einstein: “How would God do it?” A corollary of that question is, “How did nature do it?”
In fact, redox energy systems are at work right now in nearly every cell of your body. I’m talking about the energy production and storage processes in your mitochondria. Mitochondria, the plural of mitochondrion, are very similar to the microscopic bacteria found all over the planet.
Mitochondria have not yet been thoroughly understood, but that’s changing. Right now, one of the hottest areas of biotech research is the link between mitochondrial aging and disease. I’ve written often, in fact, about current research showing that it may be possible to extend healthy lifespans, or health spans, by providing mitochondria certain molecules shown to increase function.
Though I’m tempted to delve into this area, we need to talk about batteries. Mitochondria function, in fact, as super-efficient organic batteries. Relying on redox reactions and ionic energy differentials, they make and store energy without the toxic metals that power your phone.
In the organic flow battery, the metals are replaced with biomolecules called quinones. These molecules are already found in respiratory pathways in organisms for transfer of electrons. Quinones are essential to the electron transport chain in cellular respiration. This is the process of converting food to usable biological energy, adenosine phosphate (ATP).
Quinones are organic compounds with huge redox capacity, meaning they can carry twice the electrons as the metals used in batteries. They are made, primarily, of carbon so they won’t be a problem to dispose of and could be much cheaper to use.
Many are so nontoxic that many people already consume them as supplements. If you’re taking CoQ10, you’re already ingesting a quinone important to mitochondrial function, called “1,4-benzoquinone.” Quinones are easily found in plants as well as petroleum, which makes them cheap.
Moreover, the components of these molecules are efficiently recycled within the redox process, meaning that a quinone-based redox process could theoretically be completely reversible. This would mean that batteries utilizing them would have very long and efficient lifespans at low cost. This is not surprising given that your mitochondria are basically rechargeable battery systems that can work marvelously for decades and decades.
The Race to Develop Quinone Batteries
Several important research groups are competing to develop organic flow batteries using quinones. One is the Harvard team of Michael Aziz. The lead researcher, Michael Marshak speculated about the end product of this research for the publication of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences:
To back up a commercial wind turbine, a large storage tank would be needed, possibly located in a below-grade basement ... Or if you had a whole field of turbines or large solar farm, you could imagine a few very large storage tanks ... Imagine a device the size of a home heating oil tank sitting in your basement. It would store a day’s worth of sunshine from the solar panels on the roof of your house, potentially providing enough to power your household from late afternoon, through the night, into the next morning, without burning any fossil fuels.
You can read the paper this group published, titled A metal-free organic–inorganic aqueous flow battery. It can be previewed or bought through the journal Nature.
Another group investigating the potential of quinone batteries is at USC, led by Sri Narayan. Allow me to quote him from USC News:
The batteries last for about 5,000 recharge cycles, giving them an estimated 15-year life span ... Lithium ion batteries degrade after around 1,000 cycles and cost 10 times more to manufacture.
Collaborator G.K. Surya Prakash added, “Such organic flow batteries will be game-changers for grid electrical energy storage in terms of simplicity, cost, reliability and sustainability.”
Happily, the entire paper is online at this time. Published in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society, it can be read or downloaded here.
Of course, this new battery technology could have impacts far beyond just solar power. In terms of long-term renewable resources, it could also apply to tidal, wave, and wind energy production. This could reduce reliance on the energy grid/system that most of the world uses today and promote individual energy production systems and distributed energy storage.
I spoke, in fact, with the ex-head of NASA’s solar-energy program, and he was intrigued enough by progress in this area to begin monitoring organic flow batteries. He told me that the prospect of distributed energy storage could rescue the grid, though of course it remains to be seen if all of the challenges to organic flow batteries can be solved. We certainly hope so, as it would leverage the value of next-generation solar. This would have practical as well as financial consequences.
In the appropriate environment, homes and business could have one of these new batteries in their garage capable of providing enough energy in an emergency to provide a couple days’ power. As a resident of South Florida, the inevitability of hurricanes makes this an extremely attractive option.
Already, homeowners are investing in power backup systems. Earthquakes and brownouts in California would likely make such systems very popular there. All across the southern United States, I would expect independent-minded families to turn to off-the-grid power generation.
Obviously, the TransTech team is going to be monitoring developments in this emerging technology closely. This is very exciting.
For transformational profits,
From the TransTech Digest research team: To begin reading Patrick’s Tech Digest newsletter for free each business day, simply click here. At Patrick’s Transformational Technologies site, you can join Tech Digest by entering your email address at the top right of the page. Thanks for reading.