Efficiency and reliability of energy transmission and storage is dependent on the storage capacity of the battery. This is applicable to all systems, ranging from small personal devices to power grids. Batteries are used to supply power to portable devices, to fuel vehicles, and to cause disruptions in the working of electric grids. However, despite the high applicability of batteries, technological advances in the battery industry in meeting the demand for power in the modern world have been slow-paced.
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A noteworthy innovation in the battery industry is the pioneering research on liquid-metal rechargeable batteries conducted by Professor Donald Sadoway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The research included application of magnesium-antimony (Mg-Sb) and lead-antimony (Pb-Sb) in the experiments at MIT. In the experiment, electrode and electrolyte layers are heated until they turn into liquid and segregate due to density and immiscibility. Liquid metal batteries have longer lifespans than conventional batteries.
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The technology for liquid metal batteries was first proposed in 2009. It was based on the separation of magnesium and antimony by molten salt. The selection of magnesium and antimony at negative and positive electrodes, respectively, was done primarily due to their low cost. Moreover, magnesium exhibited low solubility in molten-salt electrolyte, whereas, antimony was anticipated to discharge higher voltage.
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Based on metal composition in battery, the liquid metal battery market can be segmented into Mg-Sb battery, Pb-Sb battery, and Na-S battery. Sodium-sulfur (Na-S) batteries are partially molten-metal batteries. They can be used for storing energy for renewable applications, load leveling, or providing backup source. Raw materials required for producing Na-S batteries are relatively inexpensive; they are also abundantly available. However, the lifespan of Na-S battery is short due to degradation caused by the corrosive nature of its active ingredients viz. sodium and sulfur. Furthermore, usage of Na-S batteries has been limited to large-sized applications.
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In 2010, commercialization of the liquid metal battery technology invented at MIT was carried out through the Liquid Metal Battery Corporation (LMBC). The company was later renamed as Ambri in 2012. Ambri launched its commercialized liquid metal battery technology in 2016. Liquid metal batteries are projected to have a lifespan of more than 15 years with no degradation in performance. These batteries can be custom designed in order to meet specific needs.
Development of liquid metal battery is an innovative approach for solving problems in grid-scale electricity storage. Integration of renewable resources into power grid can be improved with the capabilities of liquid metal batteries. Moreover, liquid metal batteries are perceived to improve the reliability of an aging grid. They are also likely to counterbalance the requirement of additional transmission, generation, and distribution assets in a grid system. The end-user market of liquid metal battery is fairly competitive as constant innovations targeting utility-scale energy storage applications are underway.
The liquid metal battery utilizes three liquid layers as electroactive components. These components comprise liquid metal positive electrode, a fused salt electrolyte, and a liquid metal negative electrode. Due to the difference in their density and immiscible properties, these three liquid layers can float on top of each other. This characteristic, along with the usage of inexpensive materials, fosters low assembly cost of liquid metal batteries.
Liquid metal batteries can overcome mechanism failure generally faced by solid-state battery components. This has the potential to elongate the lifespan of the device. Ongoing research in this field comprises several engineering challenges and scientific topics such as computational thermal modeling, fundamental thermodynamic measurements of candidate electrode couples, electrochemical studies of molten salt electrolytes, long term corrosion and lifespan testing, and scaling up the design to build larger single-cells.
Key players operating in the liquid metal battery market include Ambri Inc., EnerVault, Aquion, and Pellion Technologies.