Israelis looking to harness local bromine to produce revolutionary new battery

Technion researchers, US company working to create affordable, rechargeable batteries to store solar and wind power that could ‘bring Israel to forefront of renewables revolution’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Solar panels in the southern Israeli city of Eilat, October 21, 2015. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
Solar panels in the southern Israeli city of Eilat, October 21, 2015. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Groundbreaking Israeli efforts to develop an affordable, rechargeable battery to store solar and wind energy using a locally mined resource could put the country at the forefront of the world’s renewable energy revolution in less than three years.

Researchers at the Technion in the northern city of Haifa are partnering with a US company that already sells storage batteries in order to develop a cheaper, more efficient version that, competitively priced, could outstrip what the market offers today.

The system relies on zinc and bromine. Israel Chemicals already the world’s largest producer of bromine, in September announced that it was investing $50 million to expand capacity at its Dead Sea plant. Both bromine and zinc are relatively inexpensive, and certainly far cheaper than the lithium used to power portable devices such as phones and laptops.

The main obstacle, worldwide, to replacing fossil fuels with 100 percent renewable energy is the lack of storage options. The sun does not shine at night and you might not want to shower only while the wind is blowing.

The Dead Sea Works factory at the southern end of the Dead Sea, Feb 1 2012. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

At present, renewables are being used in combination with fossil fuels. In Israel, for example, where the Energy Ministry is aiming to reach 30% renewables by 2030, natural gas will provide for the remaining 70%, including at times when  renewable energy supply is minimal but demand is high.

Today, more than 90 percent of renewable energy storage is carried out by pumping water uphill and then letting it plunge downhill to drive turbines when the energy is needed. Similar in principle to hydroelectricity, it only suits certain hilly terrains as the water needs to be pumped several hundred meters up by the solar- or wind-powered generating stations.

The upper reservoir (Llyn Stwlan) and dam of the Ffestiniog Pumped Storage Scheme in north Wales. The four water turbines at the power station can generate 360 MW of electricity within 60 seconds of the need arising. (Taken by Adrian Pingstone in 1988 and released to the public domain/Wikimedia).

The other, far less common, method of storing renewable energy is compressed air energy storage. Air is pumped into underground caverns. When allowed to escape in a controlled fashion, the pressurized air drives turbines to create energy. This option, though, requires the presence of natural underground features such as airtight underground spaces, so it is also limited.

According to Bloomberg NEF, Bloomberg’s primary research arm, falling wind, solar and battery costs mean that renewables are on course to make up almost 40% of world electricity in 2040.

Today, the race is on to develop alternatives to pumped water that can be located anywhere.

A single Primus Power battery and associated equipment, designed to store renewable energy. (Courtesy)

One system, already in its second generation, is being marketed by the Silicon Valley-based Primus Power, although not yet to Israel. Suitable for both wind and solar storage, its technology centers on a tank combining bromine and zinc — two materials that react to produce energy. At present, each of their units, which are sold in packs, can store 125 kilowatt-hours of energy. One kilowatt-hour (kWh) is the amount of energy used to keep a 1,000-watt appliance running for an hour. For the sake of comparison, an air conditioner working for eight hours a day might consume 340 kilowatt hours per month.

Primus has connected with researchers at the Technion to try to double that battery capacity to 250 kWh within the same-sized unit to make it more competitive.

The new improved units — which are sold in large batches to customers such as electrical companies and wind farms — will allow the price of a kWh to drop from $150 to $100,  so long as at least 500 MW worth of units are sold annually, to achieve the necessary economy of scale.

Leading the laboratory research is Matthew Suss, an Israeli who grew up in Canada and returned six years ago to work at the Technion’s Faculty of Mechanical Engineering. An assistant professor there, he specializes in electrochemical systems for energy storage as well as water desalination.

Matthew Suss of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. (Courtesy)

Six months into the project, Suss says that his team is close to its intermediate goal of storing 175 kWh in the same-sized unit. The new 250 kWh batteries will hit the market toward the end of the project’s three years.

“We’re hoping that this becomes the key storage system in the world, as well as helping Israel, because the bromine is here,” Suss told The Times of Israel.

“In a country with so much sunshine, where bromine is relatively plentiful, this project can be a catalyst for bringing Israel to where it should be, at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution.”

The venture — two years in the lab and one year in commercial development by Primus — is being funded to the tune of around $1 million (representing half of the research and development costs) by the BIRD foundation — the Israeli-US Binational Industrial Research and Development, Set up in 1977 by the US and Israeli governments to generate mutually beneficial cooperation between American and Israeli companies, including startups.

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