Dutch chemists create breakthrough

A genuinely clean and cheap battery

Text: Bastienne Wentzel Photo: Curve Mags and More

GRONINGEN - Environmentally friendly, safe and affordable battery packs for the storage of electricity at home has been a holy grail for many years. However, Dutch researchers have now turned this into a reality in collaboration with industry.

Bastienne Wentzel
Curve Mags and More

A group of Dutch chemists have developed batteries that contain just iron and carbon and that make use of air. These are more environmentally friendly, safer and cheaper than standard batteries. The battery is ready for the market: the first megafactory in Groningen was opened on 1 October 2038.
These batteries are expected to replace the nickel-containing variant and the lithium batteries that many people have at home to store electricity from solar panels. A previous pilot from E-Stone, which in 2018 was involved in the development of the nickel-iron-sulphur battery, has already demonstrated that the new batteries provide just as much energy, have a longer lifespan, are just as efficient and also cheaper. Professor of sustainable energy storage Moniek Tromp, who has collaborated with E-Stone from the outset, explains: ‘At the start of the 2030s, we started a project to make iron-air batteries suitable for use on a large scale. The technology was shown to work in the lab back in 2025, more than five years after we had developed a nickel-sulphur battery, but we then encountered practical problems. For example, it took us a long time to find the right combination of graphene and porous carbon to increase the efficiency of the air electrode. Just like with its predecessor, the stability and cost-efficient reproducibility on a large-scale was also a problem. However, we have solved that now.’

Capital injection

‘E-Stone received a large order for nickel-iron-sulphur batteries and that made it possible to further develop the environmentally friendly variant. E-Stone provides all storage capacity for the largest Dutch offshore wind park, “IJmuiden Ver”, which has been operational since 2030. That order gave us sufficient capital to develop the nickel-free battery. Nickel continued to be a thorn in the eye. Although the safety of the battery is guaranteed and it cannot explode like a lithium-ion battery, nickel-sulphur compounds can be detrimental to human health. Furthermore, nickel has to be extracted from mines and this has a considerable environmental impact. Plus the price of nickel has risen considerably. A battery that just contains iron, carbon and air is genuinely environmentally friendly’, states Tromp. ‘Iron is widely available, and easy and clean to extract and recycle. Carbon and air do not cause any environmental problems either.’

Cars and mobile phones

For the time being, the iron-air battery is not yet suitable for use in mobile equipment. ‘The systems for the air inlet in the iron-air battery are still too complex for use in portable electronics.’ The researchers are also working on a variant of these batteries for use in electric cars and buses. ‘The batteries need to be able to charge and discharge very quickly. We are currently working on that’, says Tromp. ‘We have demonstrated that it is possible. Vehicles can currently only travel 400 kilometres on an iron-air battery. The best lithium batteries have a range of 800 kilometres - we therefore still have a long way to go. The weight of the iron-air battery needs to be halved for the same energy content. That is theoretically possible, but it requires a better understanding of the reactions involved. Recent research into new catalysts has brought this a step closer, as well as the falling price of materials such as graphene. We think that we can now more accurately control the reactions that take place in that cell. However, it will certainly be another ten years before these batteries can be launched on the market.’ ↙