I’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign to try to support a student in building an iron battery. I’ve got video up that talks about where we’ve been so far this year. We have had some success in building the battery and we’re moving to a better construction method.
We would like to test different cathode salts including a better test of potassium ferricyanide. We would also like to test different solvents such as a deep eutectic solvent and ionic liquid. The big, open question is the separator. We can try some natural gels, some in-house polymers and we can see if we can find a commercial polymer that is cheap and available enough to do the job.
I think it will be a great project for an undergraduate chemist with an interest in renewable energy. If you’d like to check out or share the campaign, the link is here:
This weekend I grew some potassium phosphate crystals with amaranth dye. I did this back in 2001 in Bart Kahr’s O-Chem class and remembered it recently. It’s a fun demonstration of the chemistry of crystal growth, the different chemistry of the crystal faces, and it’s pretty. I found Prof. Kahr’s paper that gives a “foolproof recipe” and it did not disappoint. Even this fool could make it work.
As the crystals grow, each face of the crystal has a unique topology. The corners are growing with a different spacing of atoms than the faces, and the faces can be different from each other. Sometimes, the faces have the right spacing to allow a dye molecule to stick. In this case, there is a big difference between how well amaranth dye sticks to each face. So as the crystal rows, it only gets dyed in two quadrants.
We can learn about chemistry from crystals
Crystals are super useful to chemists. A good crystal of a chemical can be used to get x-ray diffraction data on the structure of the chemical. The most detailed structures are derived from x-ray diffraction data.
Knowing how molecules assemble into crystals is also really important to materials scientists. If you want to design a material from its atoms, you need to know how they are going to come together. I’ve been working on making an iron battery and reading up on battery chemistry. One of the interesting papers I read talked about designing a cathode material to hold sodium atoms. The chemists designed the “holes” in the structure to hold sodium atoms – and they needed to know how the other atoms would come together to make that shape.
Why chemically dyed crystals are cool
Of course, dyed crystals just look cool. Maybe that’s silly, but if you’re trying to teach organic chemistry, it’s good to have something visual and striking to hold on to. A lot of O-chem is solvents and white powder, so anything that sticks in the memory is a help.
The other reason I think that dyed crystals are so cool is that they dyes can be held still very precisely. One of prof. Kahr’s later papers used a crystal to hold a fluorescent dye in place at a specific orientation. Then they used a fluorescence microscope to look at single dye molecules. I think that’s just really cool. I gather that they are more stable in the crystal than they are in solution.
I also made a time-lapse movie of the crystallization
I’m attending The Northwest Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Corvallis. I just wandered around downtown. That was nice. My hope is to see some computational chemistry, commercialization, and nanoparticles tomorrow.
What tools are getting used for simulations? I’m especially interested in coarse-grained simulations of macromolecules. I see several Density Functional Theory talks and that should be interesting. Maybe folks from that world can point me in the right direction. Is anyone using tensorflow for such things?
There’s a panel on market-driven innovations. I would love to hear if people are funding academic labs through collaborations with industry. I feel like that would be a win-win, but I don’t know where to start there, either.
There’s also a bunch of analytical chemists giving MS talks and a “smart” nanoparticle talk. That’s just the morning session. I’ll have a hard time choosing.
If you’re in Corvallis and are reading this, do please shoot me a gmail (pballen). I’ll buy the first round at Tommy’s.
Iron is cheap, and iron chemistry can be used to make a battery. If you want to buy a lithium-ion backup battery pack for a home solar system, it will cost as much as the solar panels. Effectively, a 24/7 solar system is about double the cost of a grid-tied system. The same is true for the grid itself. If the utilities want to move to cheap solar power, they will need to buy huge batteries. If utility companies tried this with lithium batteries, it would be such a big endeavor that it would mess with the lithium market. Iron is produced at such a huge scale that a move to grid-scale iron batteries wouldn’t completely alter the iron market.
I tried a dumb idea and it didn’t work. I tried to make an iron-oxide electrode for an iron battery. The idea was that iron oxide can be reduced to iron magnetite. That would be a cheap cathode for an all-iron battery. Plus, since iron oxide is a solid, it would stay where it was put and not diffuse over to the other electrode. So that would be nice, too.
Obviously (even to me at the time) iron oxide is an insulator, not a conductor. So if it is going to act as an oxidizing agent, it will need a path for electrons. Electrons can’t move through the iron oxide. They need to move through some other conductive material. So I embedded iron oxide particles in graphite.
The result was nothing at all. The cell was dead on assembly. I could not detect the iron oxide reduction/oxidation with any instruments at my disposal. Other groups have reported the oxidation potential of the iron oxide nanoparticles. They put them in a suspension swirling near the electrode and that seemed to work. So maybe it’s possible, but I can’t get it to go. Iron oxide is out.
I made a better cell with Iron (III) EDTA as the oxidizing agent. It’s soluble so that makes things work better. I used a graphite felt as a current collector and it worked just great. The energy density is low (as expected) but it works.
The next step is to optimize and stack up a bunch of cells. I think it’s getting close to being an “open source battery.”
I’ve been vlogging about this, if you want to watch progress in almost real time, have a look.
I have been working on building an all-iron battery. A cheap storage solution needs to happen soon: the pacific northwest has such an abundance of electricity that Bonneville Power needed to shut down wind turbines to deal with the surplus. For stationary batteries, weight and performance are less important than cost.
An iron battery is likely to be cheap. Iron is a very cheap material and iron chemistry doesn’t require special handling for air-sensitivity or toxicity. I ran the numbers. If the world used all of its lead, lithium or iron to build a battery, lead and lithium would be small as a percentage of the grid. Iron looks pretty good. We could make a grid scale iron battery without disrupting the iron market.
So how would an iron battery work? First, we need an anode. That’s easy: we can use the Edison Cell anode made of iron and iron hydroxide. It’s an old technology and is very robust. We also need a cathode. We need an iron chemical that can be easily reduced. That means some form of Iron(III). Rust, basically. A solid would be great, and a conductive solid would be even better. I tried iron oxide. That didn’t work. It can absorb an electron, and it’s solid, but it’s not conducive and I couldn’t get significant current.
I gave up on having an all-solid chemistry. I decided to try Iron(III)EDTA which is nicely soluble in water. I made the first version of this cell that seemed to work. I tested the design with an iron/copper cell. Half of the Edison Cell and half of the Daniell Cell. I made a salt bridge with 1M KCl and agarose. The result gave 0.9 V.
For all-iron chemistry, I kept steel wool on the anode side. Then I replaced the copper with iron/EDTA. I made a ~0.1 M solution of Iron (III) EDTA in pH 8 buffer (a little Tris/acetate that I had lying around; probably not ideal). I connected up the cathode with a bit of nichrome wire (I would prefer to soak the iron solution into conductive graphite, but I started simple). That gave 0.5 V. So it works, at least a little. Now I need to make it better.
I also just wanted to mention that I “vlog” about this and other things every Monday to Friday. I’m sometimes talking about other projects, but for whatever reason, I’m feeling a bit obsessive with this one. I hope this becomes a somewhat practical battery that folks could make according to a DIY video. Maybe that would be useful to somebody (even if only as a science fair project).