One of the chapters of the report “10 breakthrough ideas in the energy sector for the next 10 years”, prepared by the Association, is devoted to this topic. In a recent interview with the Vice President of the Global Energy Association Pavel Korolev, Professor Ioana Ionel, Head of the Research Centre at the Polytechnic University of Timisoara, shared her ideas about the future of this technology.
Pavel Korolev: My guest today is professor Ioana Ionel, the head of the research centre at Polytehnica University of Timisoara (in Romania). The topic of electrochemical energy storage is now a real global trend that found its reflection as a chapter in our book of “Ten breakthrough ideas in energy for the next 10 years”. Professor Ionel. Why is this so?
Ioana Ionel: The answer is quite simple: because we have to invest in clean energy transition. Successful transformation of the electricity sector might be supported by economic development, but first of all energy security and energy transition.
Electrochemical energy storage is a method used to store electricity under a chemical form. The main purpose is to limit the losses and to make efforts for building rechargeable electrochemical systems, and to create super capacities, mainly big sources that are able to be used not for, let’s say, smartphones and tablets and so on, but also for electric cars, for big batteries for homes, for hospitals and so on.
The problem is that energy storage is not yet solved when one is using renewable energy, mainly energy that is dependent on time and weather. Batteries might be developed in such a form to assure long-term energy storage, but they might be created as a first step to a carbon-free energy future.
Pavel Korolev: Energy storage is often considered a rival to conventional sources because of it goes hand in hand with renewables, while taking them to another level. What are the prospects of such competition in your opinion?
Ioana Ionel: I cannot say it is a competition. Energy storage is needed. If it is electrochemical
or if it is thermal energy storage or pumped hydroelectric or compressed air, electricity is needed and electricity must be there when it is needed and in a secure form. So, I cannot see that there is a competition, because each system has its benefits.
The combination with renewable systems is a solution. I see such a solution for the batteries of the future, but at the same time one has to accelerate the innovation of materials. Also, a digital transformation must occur and the whole future of storage must be redesigned or developed, because presently it does not exist in a needed form.
Pavel Korolev: Material studies have significantly varied the energy storage sphere in terms of using various kinds of materials and their combinations in accumulators. We already use different types of batteries in various spheres of life. For example, we have lithium ion and medium polymer accumulators in our cell phones, lithium titanate ones in electric cars and the renewable energy sphere and so on. What in your opinion will be the battery of the future?
Ioana Ionel: Electric storage and its future are presently in second place on the list of top critical uncertainty keeping ministers and energy experts awake and studying future performance. The role of storage is to secure the supply of electricity and to allow the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
The batteries have limitations and all these limitations must be presently solved by new materials. The lithium-ion and lithium polymer accumulators are, of course, the present and must be developed in the future. I think improving their high energy density and steps for a long cycle life would be necessary.
Lithium-ion batteries have shown up to now a great potential, but they are not yet economically viable and they are not widely applied so far. For a wider application, for providing energy for transport and energy delivery, they are not yet developed. But I think that we can have in the future significant benefits for this.
Of course, new materials, new electrode materials might be used, electrodes with higher rate capacity, let’s say higher charge capacity, higher voltage power density, and of course the systems, the batteries might be made smaller and, of great importance, cheaper. Presently, insufficient electrical conductivity is apparent for all these batteries and this could be solved.
We have a perspective, a nice perspective and research is open to whatever we can imagine at this moment. The lithium-titanate ones in electric cars are also in a developing phase, but what I can say is that presently they are created with a lot of energy consumed and a lot of CO2 is invested in them. Thus it is very important to take into consideration not only the benefits, but also the environmental damage created during the production of such batteries. And this is not only for these lithium-titanate batteries, but for all batteries in general.
In the future. in order to turn these batteries into a real support for the transition to a CO2-lean or even CO2-zero based energy, one has to develop sustainable energy sources and, with them, to create the batteries, because up to now the batteries are created with standard fossil fuel energy sources.
Pavel Korolev: When speaking about electrochemistry, we should always remember the environmental issues that may cause. Despite the fact that energy storage is more renewables-related, we know that production of graphene, for instance, may not always be considered eco-friendly, not to mention the disposal problem of accumulators in general. In this regard, what are the possible ways out?
Ioana Ionel: I see as a possible solution to adapt production to the circular economy. Reusing materials the moment that the batteries are not functional anymore is essential. Even presently, we are not able to reuse some materials with state-of-the-art knowledge.
I propose to safe deposit them, and who knows what the future will offer us. Research and researchers are developing and very quickly, so it is for sure, in my opinion, that methods for reusing most of the materials that are presently used for such batteries and energy accumulators can be the solution. Circular economy, reuse of materials, safe deposit, this is, in my opinion, a possible way out.
Pavel Korolev: How efficient could future accumulators become? Will we one day be able to send small boxes, like modern power banks, containing hundreds of megawatts or even gigawatts of energy, to remote regions of Africa, for example, to help them solve their electricity crisis?
Ioana Ionel: You know, we can dream about this, but first of all, I think before going so far to Africa, or other countries first of all, let’s say we have to secure all the systems in all countries that are offering health and education, public education. It is very important that hospitals all over the world have continuous electricity and in all strategic sectors, we must improve energy delivery. We cannot have shutdowns or blackouts of the energy systems and, of course, all developing countries must be supported, but the support must be created in licensing and, of course, in investing in such countries.
I can dream that in the cosmos we will have flying batteries that will provide electricity wherever it is needed. I think future energy sources are presently only at their beginnings and whatever progress will be made, let’s say, for automotive engines or for coupling batteries with renewable energies, all kind of batteries will be needed and turned into much more disposable dynamic accumulators.
Efficiency is presently a little bit limited, but for sure the near future will solve this and offer us new schemes to preserve the present characteristics of the accumulators. I think of so-called dynamic accumulators that must be used in all kinds of situations. In my opinion, the batteries of the future must be very efficient. They must be online when needed. They must be, let’s say, seen as human source for future development. We cannot say that a battery developed for a good purpose must remain used by limited area of population. Whatever is developed must be put, of course, in an economic form to a large branch of users. Global use of the batteries is very important.