Storing Energy: Fuel Cells and Beyond

Fuel input for hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered vehicle. Photo from Siemens PLM in Cypress California.

Storing energy is important for both long-term and short-term uses: to meet changes in energy supply and demand and to iron out irregularities in energy output, whether that’s in a car engine or on the power grid.

Unfortunately, we can only store a tiny fraction  of the electricity we produce in a single day. Instead, power plants have to send their thousands of megawatts of electricity to the right place, at the right time. For more details about electricity transmission, see Power Grid Technology.

Our current electric grid has various quick storage solutions to help make energy delivey smooth, and we use energy storage in cars, phones, and anything else that needs to be moved around. However, batteries and other storing options leave much to be desired.

Devices like capacitors and flywheels can store energy for extremely short periods.  Few technologies exist to store large amounts of energy over time periods ranging to several days: only pumped (water) storage is widely used to store energy on the scale of a power plant.

As energy sources are expanding to include more renewable and intermittent resources like wind and solar onto the electricity grid as we try to both meet growing energy demand and control greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, there is increased interest in having reliable energy storage for vehicles, instead of gasoline and diesel fuels.

 

BATTERIES

Depending on the type of battery, these devices can store energy on location, like at home or in the car, in a laptop or cell phone. Note that though batteries and fuel cells can help integrate renewable energy sources, most electricity is still generated from fossil fuels. Both charging batteries and making hydrogen for fuel cells  thus produce greenhouse gas through reliance on the prevailing sources of electricity, and using these devices is less efficient than plugging into the wall because there’s always energy loss to byproducts like heat.

Batteries store chemical energy. Chemical reactions in the battery release that energy as needed. Eventually all the starting materials of the reaction are consumed and the battery is dead, or at least unusable until it’s recharged. There are many kinds of batteries, made of a wide array of chemicals. Polysulfide Bromide (PSB), Vanadium Redox (VRB), Zinc Bromine (ZnBr), Hydrogen Bromine (H-Br), and sodium sulfide batteries are some that the electricity industry has interest in.

Electric utilities use lead-acid batteries, which can be recharged, but there is research into other materials for utility and transportation use. Some of the best batteries used today for cars are nickel metal hydride and lithium ion.

 

HYDROGEN FUEL CELLS

Hydrogen fuel cells aren’t the same as batteries, but they can serve a similar purpose. Fuel cells are lumped with batteries because they both function through stored chemical energy. However, in practice, fuel cells are more like engines. They run off hydrogen “fuel” and produce energy and waste products, mostly  water vapor. As long as hydrogen keeps being added, the cell can run, just like a gasoline engine can keep running as long as more gasoline is added. A battery has a finite amount of energy unless it’s recharged with electricity.

For more about how to make hydrogen for fuel cells, see The hydrogen economy, hydrogen sources, and the science behind these.

For a description of different hydrogen fuel cells in development right now, see here.

 

FLYWHEELS

One way to smooth bumps in electricity delivery is through flywheels, which store energy in the form of rotational kinetic energy. A spinning potter’s wheel stores the energy of a good kick to be used moments later to mold a clay pot, and flywheels operate on a similar principle. In automobile engines, flywheels ease the transition between bumpy firing pistons and the drive shaft.

Flywheels can store energy for limited periods of time, from seconds to a few minutes.

 

PUMPED STORAGE

Pumped storage (of water) is the only widely-used method for storing huge amounts of energy for long periods of time. The United States has a capacity of more than 20,000 megawatts of pumped storage, according to the National Hydropower Association.

During times of excess electricity production, that excess energy is used to pump water to a higher altitude, increasing its gravitational potential energy. When extra energy is needed, the water is allowed to flow back down by way of turbines, turning that potential energy back into electricity.

For a figure of pumped storage see the National Hydropower Association

 

OTHER WAYS TO STORE ENERGY

Other technologies are constantly being investigated for energy storage. Compressed air storage is when air is forced into spaces like mines or caves and held at high pressure, using up energy in the process. When the compressed air is let out again, it can turn turbines to generate electricity.

Thermal energy storage exploits the difference in temperature between a system and the environment. In the late 1800s, Americans used thermal energy storage by cutting blocks of lake ice during the winter and storing them underground packed in insulating wood shavings. When the summer rolled around, they retrieved that stored ice to make food cold, exploiting the difference in temperature to force thermal energy out of the food.

Thermal energy storage can also happen in the other direction. Electricity or other forms of energy can be used to heat various materials, which are stored in insulated containers. Later, when the energy is needed, the hot materials can heat water into steam, and that steam can push turbines, which in turn produce electricity.

Thermal energy storage can also be used through ocean energy.

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Thermodynamics and Thermal Energy

Thermodynamics is the study of how energy moves and changes form, usually by way of heat, as suggested by the components of its name: thermo-dynamics. Its laws and equations help to predict what could happen in various situations, based on the temperature, pressure, materials, and shape of a system.

Thermodynamics tells us how to calculate the ultimate temperature of a refrigerator or how much energy we can get out of a steam engine. Thermodynamics can also be applied to chemistry and the world on an atomic level, predicting which compounds are stable at specific temperatures and pressures. Thermodynamics explains why diamonds form naturally and spontaneously from carbon-based compounds deep inside the Earth, but they cannot form spontaneously here on the surface.

Thermodynamics relies on the idea that energy is conserved, even if it is transferred from or to a system to its surroundings through heat, changes in momentum, or other forms of energy.

 

TEMPERATURE AND HEAT

Heat and thermal energy are directly related to temperature. We can’t see individual atoms vibrating in solids, liquids, and gases, but we can feel their kinetic energies as temperature. Atoms in solids, liquids, and gases do vibrate. If they didn’t, they would be at absolute zero, a theoretical state of zero thermal energy at ­-459.67 Fahrenheit.

When there’s a difference between the temperature of the environment and a system within it, thermal energy is transferred between them as heat. Something doesn’t have heat. Instead, as an object or system gains or loses heat, it increases or decreases its thermal energy.

Adjacent objects that exhibit different temperatures will spontaneously transfer heat to try to reach the same temperature as each other, or equilibrium. However, how much energy it takes to change the temperature of an object is based on what its made of, a property called heat capacity or thermal capacity.

Water has a higher heat capacity than steel, for example. An empty pot on the stove takes almost no time to get to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, or the boiling temperature of water. A pot with some water in it will take far much longer to reach the same temperature, because water needs to absorb more energy — per weight, per degree — to gain the same number of degrees as metal. (Even though the vaporization temperature of metal is far, far higher than the water’s).

 

THERMAL ENERGY STORAGE: A SOURCE OF POWER

Thermal energy storage exploits the difference in temperature between a system and the environment. In the late 1800s, Americans used thermal energy storage by cutting blocks of lake ice during the winter and storing them underground packed in insulating wood shavings. When the summer rolled around, they retrieved that stored ice to make food cold, exploiting the difference in temperature to force thermal energy out of the food and into the ice.

Thermal energy storage can also happen in the other direction. Electricity or other forms of energy can be used to heat various materials, which are stored in insulated containers. Later, when the energy is needed, the hot materials can heat water into steam, and that steam can push turbines, which in turn produce electricity.

Solar panels use thermal energy storage. The panels absorb the heat of sunlight and store that energy so it can be transformed into electricity with turbines. There are several kinds of solar panels, but all rely on heat for energy, unlike photovoltaic cells.

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