The hybrid systems to be deployed in July will combine an 18-kilowatt diesel generator

One promising new type of battery, which actually has lower storage capacity than today’s lithium-ion batteries, could nevertheless prove a boon to plug-in hybrids. Lithium iron phosphate batteries use iron, a very cheap metal, instead of cobalt, and they have an inherently safe chemistry (see “Safer Lithium-Ion Batteries”). What’s more, they operate at a lower voltage that will extend the life of the electrolyte, and therefore the battery.

“I get a little skeptical when somebody thinks they’ve got a silver bullet for every application, because that’s just not consistent with reality,” says Andrew Burke, an expert on energy systems for transportation at University of California at Davis.

Nor is there much incentive for new entrepreneurial players to build flow cells. That’s because deregulation has not yet introduced true competition in the transmission and distribution business. Upstarts who challenge the power industry with flow cells could easily be thwarted by the monopolies that control the power lines. “Even if my numbers show that the markets would be worth billions, who is going to take that risk?” Iannucci asks.

The most credible, reproducible results to date, says David Tomanek, professor of physics at Michigan State University, were achieved by Mildred Dresselhaus, a physicist at MIT, and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who reported finding a way for carbon nanotubes to store 4.2 percent of their weight in hydrogen. That may be enough for micro fuel cells, Tomanek says. “It will be lighter, smaller and safer than a tank, even at four percent, and this could be done in a couple of years. But I am an optimist,” he says.

Silicon has 10 times the theoretical lithium storage capacity of the carbon used to make battery anodes, but it’s been difficult for researchers to make it into a practical battery electrode. As large volumes of lithium ions move in and out of the material during charge and discharge, silicon swells and cracks.

Hubler claims the resulting power density (the speed at which energy can be stored or released) could be orders of magnitude greater, and the energy density (the amount of energy that can be stored) two to 10 times greater than possible with today’s best lithium-ion and other battery technologies.

The hybrid systems to be deployed in July will combine an 18-kilowatt diesel generator, similar to those currently used in the battlefield, with a 40-kilowatt-hour bank of lithium-ion batteries. The system will also include a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic solar panel array that will further lower fuel consumption.

Millennium isn’t the only company to move beyond methanol as a fuel choice.  New York City-based rival Medis Technologies utilizes a proprietary sodium borohydride chemistry to run its portable Power Pack. Nevertheless, fuel-cell technology is considered to be moving forward only slowly, as would-be developers, including some of the world’s biggest electronics makers, wrestle with issues of size, energy density, and even federal aviation regulations, which could keep such power sources off planes. In this atmosphere, the use of hydrogen, some feel, might help overcome existing challenges and propel the market forward.

Next, a virus called M13, which the researchers have employed in earlier self-assembly studies, was used to make the anode. The virus is made of proteins, which can be genetically modified to react with particular substances. In this case, it generated structured arrays of cobalt oxide nanowires on top of the solid electrolyte. Finally, the assembled electrodes were flipped over and pressed onto thin bands of platinum, which were joined to a copper contact in order to collect current from the device.

Sodium borohydride, the solution used by Millennium Cell, Medis, and the Arizona State team is becoming a popular choice to store hydrogen for portable fuel cells, says Gervasio. One reason is that it’s used with the most-established fuel cell design. This type of fuel cell works by combining hydrogen with oxygen from the air to produce electric current.

In addition, systems that use sodium borohydride can be made as small as conventional batteries because the solution stores a large amount of hydrogen in a small volume. Moreover, it’s a relatively safe liquid that isn’t flammable. “You could take a match and put it out in it,” Gervasio says.

Those who want 300-to-400-mile ranges typical of gasoline-powered vehicles will need to turn to plug-in hybrids: vehicles much like today’s gas-electric hybrids, but with a much larger battery pack that makes it possible to go longer on electric power, thereby saving gas. These batteries could be partly charged by an onboard gas engine, but also by electricity from a wall socket.

The implications are enormous and, for many, unbelievable. Such a breakthrough has the potential to radically transform a transportation sector already flirting with an electric renaissance, improve the performance of intermittent energy sources such as wind and sun, and increase the efficiency and stability of power grids–all while fulfilling an oil-addicted America’s quest for energy security.

And in such congested electricity markets as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland, deferring construction of a new power line by installing a flow cell instead could save more than $1,000 per kilowatt per year, says Joseph Iannucci, principal with Distributed Utility Associates, an energy consulting firm in Livermore, CA. By unclogging transmission bottlenecks while simultaneously playing the power markets, flow cell operators could not only make the technology practical, but also earn $4 billion in revenue annually in the United States alone, Iannucci maintains.

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