Renewable energies, at any time: Gaia Membranes and the new efficiency in energy storage

Everybody knows: After a few years, but mostly after a few months, the performance of the smartphone battery decreases noticeably. If you don’t want to keep your mobile phone plugged into an electrical outlet, you’ll find the Powerbank to be your constant companion from now on. Very few non-physicists know why batteries weaken so quickly. Two founders, however, have the right idea about it, because better efficiency for energy storage is exactly what Fabio Oldenburg and Elian Pusceddu have set themselves on the flag.

With their start-up Gaia Membranes (a spin-off of the Swiss Paul Scherrer Institute) founded in spring they have come close to their vision of an efficient, inexpensive, but above all environmentally friendly energy storage technology. What is still missing? The company’s own production plant, a few demonstration projects – and then the planned delivery can begin next year. Their goal: a future in which renewable energies are available at all times, even when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. The focus of this vision is efficient energy storage – and the self-developed Amphion™ membrane.

Fabio Oldenburg explained exactly what this is and why it has nothing to do with smartphone batteries during an interview at the EIT Climate-KIC Demo Day 2019.

Fabio, what does “Gaia Membranes” mean – and what are you going to do?

“Gaia” comes from Greek and means “Mother Earth”. We want to preserve our planet by creating a society with one hundred percent renewable energy. Energy storage is necessary for this. Its heart is the membrane. But unfortunately, the membrane is also one of the main reasons why batteries are still relatively inefficient and expensive today. Exactly this problem we solved with the Amphion™ membrane. Our ion exchange membranes increase efficiency by up to 20 percent in vanadium redox flow batteries, thus reducing storage costs by up to ten percent. In this way, we help accelerate the switch to renewable energies and storage.

So, in principle, you make sure that batteries don’t run out so quickly?

Exactly, but that applies to a certain type of battery, the vanadium redox flow battery. These are not the batteries used in smartphones or electric cars – lithium-ion batteries. We have concentrated on the vanadium redox flow battery because it has an extreme advantage: an extremely long service life. Lithium-ion batteries have to be thrown away after a few years. This is not necessary with a vanadium redox flow battery. It costs a little more at the beginning, but you can easily use it for 20 years without losses in discharge capacity.

So why isn’t the vanadium redox flow battery built into smartphones?

Because despite all its advantages, it also has one disadvantage: it is much larger. A smartphone would need a vanadium redox flow battery the size of a mini refrigerator. This means that all mobile applications are eliminated. So vanadium redox flow batteries will only be available where there is space and where it is important to store energy as cheaply and environmentally friendly as possible – and preferably for several decades. For example, the field of renewable energy storage.

Why is the vanadium redox flow battery environmentally friendly?

On the one hand, because it lasts longer. On the other hand, because of its composition. Like any battery, it consists of an electrolyte – in this case water, vanadium and a little acid. Vanadium is a harmless metal, similar to iron. What the vanadium redox flow battery doesn’t need at all are catalysts, heavy metals or rare earths.

This distinguishes it from the lithium-ion battery, whose problem is not lithium but cobalt. This is often degraded under extremely harsh conditions. We do not have these problems with the contents of the vanadium redox flow battery. With our membrane, this battery becomes more efficient and there is no more capacity fading – the charging time does not gradually become shorter.

Why is that?

Each battery has a two-piece tank. The positive side contains a positive solution, the negative side a negative solution. In the middle is the membrane as a separating layer. An exchange takes place through the membrane, which has been uneven so far, so that the electrolyte shifts further and further to one side. Then, for example, there is a lot of positive solution on the positive side and significantly less negative solution on the negative side. The lower proportion, in this example the negative side, determines how much energy the battery can store. You can “reset” the battery again – but that doesn’t work completely and in turn reduces efficiency.

We took a closer look at the membrane and then modified it so that there is an even exchange between the positive and negative solution, so that the sides are always even.

So you’ve developed a membrane that ensures that the long-life vanadium redox flow batteries – no matter how often you charge and discharge them – are always equally efficient. Even twenty years from now.

Exactly. And with this product we are addressing battery manufacturers. The membrane is the most important part of a battery, because it defines lifetime and efficiency.

Where are you at the moment?

We are currently setting up a production plant because we are still operating from the university laboratories. We have also initiated industrial validation with the Amphion™ membrane and sold our first demonstration project. Two to three more will follow, and next year we plan to start the delivery.

Last question: What are your biggest challenges at the moment?

Our biggest challenge is persuasion. For example, a car manufacturer would not necessarily buy the most important part – like the engine – from a start-up. That’s how we do with membranes. We have to convince major battery manufacturers to buy this crucial battery component from us. This is quite difficult, which is why we are currently travelling from trade fair to trade fair and talking to many contacts.

The second challenge is financing the hardware. Compared to a software start-up, we need a lot of money at the beginning.

How did EIT Climate-KIC help you on your way so far?

For example with our investment-intensive start, because we had to buy a lot of materials to develop our membrane from a prototype to a product. At the same time, the risk in this phase is still so high that it doesn’t make sense to go to private investors, for example. This “bridging” was actually only possible with sponsors like EIT Climate-KIC. And especially EIT Climate-KIC was our favourite – on the one hand because of the financial support, but especially because of the course and training offer as well as the large network.

 
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