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"Tank bank" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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A team of Harvard scientists and engineers has demonstrated a new type of battery that could fundamentally transform the way electricity is stored on the grid, making power from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar far more economical and reliable.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Go with the flow.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

One of the biggest challenges to using more renewable energy is how to economically store it for when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine. Harvard scientists and engineers may have the answer: Their new organic-based flow battery. My lettuce is organic why not a battery? Instead of using expensive precious metals, the Harvard battery uses naturally-abundant and inexpensive carbon-based molecules called quinones (kwi-nohns)--similar to molecules that store energy in plants and animals.

Flow batteries store large amounts of energy in chemical fluids contained in external tanks instead of within the battery container itself. The design allows for a larger amount of energy to be stored at a much lower cost than with traditional batteries. The amount of energy you can store is only limited by the size of the tanks.

Although organic flow batteries could be part of the power grid and store energy from solar or wind, you might be able to someday store a full day's worth of sunshine at home--with solar panels and a tank about the size of the ones used for heating oil.

The team now hopes to move their design from the bench top toward a commercial system. As we try to get more and more energy from renewable sources, it's good to know that someone's minding the "store."

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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