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article imageShell Canada delves into vanadium flow battery technology

By Karen Graham     Apr 12, 2018 in Technology
Calgary - An engineer with Shell Canada has come up with a way to use a by-product from the oilsands of Alberta to create large utility-scale electricity storage for renewable energy projects.
Vanadium is a lesser-known medium-hard, steel-blue metal that rarely exists in nature as a free element, but it can be found in about 65 minerals, including magnetite, vanadinite, carnotite, and patronite. It also can be found in phosphate rock and in the oil sands of Canada.
Almost 80 percent of the vanadium produced is alloyed with iron to make a shock- and corrosion-resistant steel additive called ferrovanadium, used in making everything from cutting tools to car springs and even nuclear reactors. But who knew vanadium could be used in making a rechargeable flow battery to store chemical potential energy?
A vanadium redox flow battery, or vanadium flow battery is a type of rechargeable flow battery that employs vanadium ions in different oxidation states to store chemical potential energy. The vanadium redox battery exploits the ability of vanadium to exist in solution in four different oxidation states.
The 1 MW 4 MWh containerized vanadium flow battery owned by Avista Utilities and manufactured by Uni...
The 1 MW 4 MWh containerized vanadium flow battery owned by Avista Utilities and manufactured by UniEnergy Technologies. The energy storage system is installed in Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, on Northeast Hopkins Court, Pullman, WA.
UniEnergy Technologies
This unusual property means a flow battery can be made with just one electro-active element instead of two. Because of their relatively large size, they are mostly used for grid energy storage, such as being attached to power plants or electrical grids.
However, with the cost of renewable energy coming down and the increased investments in renewable technologies globally, as well as the growing concern over the environmental impacts of lead-acid batteries, all this is expected to propel growth in the global vanadium redox battery market in the coming years.
Shell Canada's vanadium redox flow battery
According to a new report published by Reports Monitor titled, “Vanadium Redox Flow Battery Market by Type, and Application: Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2017–2025,” because of the long-scale duration, and electrical efficiency of the flow battery, strong growth is expected.
Basic diagram og a vanadium redox flow battery
Basic diagram og a vanadium redox flow battery
And Shell Canada has joined a growing list of companies getting into the production, research and use of vanadium in renewable energy and battery storage technologies.
JT Steenkamp, a Shell Canada engineer has been testing out a new type of battery at Shell Canada's research center in Calgary, using vanadium, usually considered a by-product of oil sands production.
What particularly was exciting to Steenkamp was vanadium's unusual properties. “Vanadium is a really special element in that it is able to exist stably in a whole host of valence states,” he says, “so you can use the same electrolyte both in the positive and the negative half-cells of the battery. When you don’t use the same electrolyte, you’re at risk of degrading the battery over time as each half-cell becomes contaminated with the electrolyte from the other.”
JT Streetkamp next to his vanadium redox flow battery.
JT Streetkamp next to his vanadium redox flow battery.
Shell Canada
JT believes the potential for great durability in the flow battery makes it interesting for use in anything from large utility to residential applications in North America. He says, “you’re going to have to replace your pumps before you have to get rid of the electrolyte.”
To that end, Shell Canada has received funding from Alberta Innovates that has allowed Shell to commence a field demonstration that will use this locally-sourced waste vanadium electrolyte from Albertan oil-sands to benchmark an emerging vanadium flow battery technology.
Could be a "game-changer for renewable energies globally"
Steenkamp has constructed his vanadium redox flow battery inside a garden shed, powered by solar panels on top of the research center. He has been running the battery through continuous cycles of charging fully, then draining completely - recording data to gauge its performance.
So far, the battery can only hold a charge of six-kilowatt hours, enough to run a hairdryer for about four hours. Obviously, it would need to be much larger to store energy from a wind or solar farm, but Steenkamp says it can be scaled up. "If successful, it could be an absolute game changer. It will prove that we are capable of delivering renewable energy game-changing ideas not in spite of traditional energy but precisely because of it.," said Steenkamp.
The biggest obstacle is the cost of extracting the vanadium. Steenkamp says, "It's the classic problem of flow batteries and why we are here: Can you find this stuff in enough quantity and at a low enough cost to make large-scale energy storage viable?"
Shell hopes to take a meaningful step toward addressing the broader energy transition and climate ch...
Shell hopes to take a meaningful step toward addressing the broader energy transition and climate challenge. And, although it’s in a relatively early stage, the future certainly looks encouraging.
Shell Canada
Steenkamp is cautiously optimistic about this issue. According to the experts, a barrel of bitumen, on average, would contain just 30 milliliters of vanadium, and that's not much. However, Steenkamp says that if you multiply that by the millions of barrels of production in the oilsands every day, it amounts to a "boatload" of vanadium.
The process of extracting vanadium is the responsibility of researchers at the University of Alberta. "The project is focused on vanadium, but generally speaking, actually, all metals need to be removed," said Arno de Klerk, a chemical engineering professor who oversees the project.
"It's going well so far. We have multiple potential technologies or techniques that we are investigating," he said. "It's early days so I don't want to sound overly optimistic, but I am cautiously optimistic that this can be technically successful."
“Energy storage will play a key role in providing flexibility to Alberta’s electricity grid as we shift towards greater amounts of renewable energy’, says Maureen Kolla, Manager of Clean Power and Heat for Alberta Innovates.
More about Shell Canada, vanadium Redox Flow Battery, vanadium, waste metal, Oil sands
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