The well-known issue with many renewable technologies is inconsistency in supply. Whilst the UK might have pledged to create 40 GW of installed offshore capacity by 2030, the supply is very dependent on it being windy. On days when it isn’t, we must fall back on stored electricity.
Presently, lithium is the key element in battery production. Unfortunately, lithium, like other metals must be mined. Mining is inherently bad for the environment, with the potential for toxic by-products to escape into local water sources. Furthermore, lithium mining uses an obscene amount of water – approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium produced – often in areas where this very commodity is in short supply. For instance, one of the world’s largest reserves is underneath Bolivia’s salt flats which abuts the Atacama Desert.
As the worldwide need for battery storage increases, we are only going to require ever more lithium, not to mention cobalt and nickel, which pose their own particular problems. So, how do we fulfil our battery storage ambitions without creating new environmental disasters in tandem?
A recent project led by Spanish researchers and scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) think they have found the answer in an unlikely source.
By extracting ‘chitin’ – a material naturally occurring in shells of crustaceans (in this case shrimps) – scientists can produce electrodes to form vanadium flow batteries.
The research, published in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, finds that shrimp shells could be used to create cost effective storage batteries.
“Vanadium redox flow batteries, unlike lithium batteries used in the automotive industry, do not provide high energy density, but do provide a large volume of energy storage at low cost, which makes them ideal for storing energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind power, whose energy production is intermittent,” says Martin-Martinez.
It’s a first step, but shrimps could pave the way for sustainable battery storage without the need for lithium.