How South Korea is teaching world a lesson in getting people hyped on 5G

August 9th, 2019 no comment

South Korea, essentially the first country to launch 5G at large scale, has succeeded by adopting an aggressive strategy, say experts who believe that its progressive approach has paid off.

“There is a saying: ‘Build it and they will come’,” explains Fredrik Jungermann of mobile data analytics company Tefficient. “That’s what the Koreans are doing [with 5G]. They are not like the UK operators, very careful in rolling things out and saving on the capital expenditure. They are really building, as quickly as they can and using a lot of money on it. We can see it pays off.” 

While subscriptions started modestly at just below 6,000Tb when services launched in April, the latest figures from South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT suggest a five-fold increase to just over 30,000Tb in June. The uptake during that month also triggered a drop in the amount of 4G data traffic for the first time since January. The new data reveals that video services are driving 5G, accounting for more than half of traffic in a similar way to 4G.

Jungermann is surprised by the speed of adoption. “Korean operators have successfully managed to articulate the benefits of 5G to customers,” he said. “They are buying it even though it is more expensive”. The way 5G is marketed is via straightforward limited and unlimited data plans. A limited 5G plan costs around 55,000 Korean won (around £37.50) per month, according to Jungermann, who visited Korea in mid-July to meet the 5G industry and observed the shops and showroom of the 5G three operators. Unlimited plans start at around 80,000 won (£54.50).

According to Jungermann, the Korean pricing model has worked. “I think the price strategy is good. KT, one of the operators, has done it cleverly. They drew an equal sign between 5G and unlimited, so they are introducing a truly unlimited plan together with 5G. They have four 5G plans in total. Three of them are unlimited and have no speed throttling beyond certain limits. That’s good. As unlimited plans are more expensive they drive the total revenue. People that are interested in 5G will most likely also upgrade”.

As for the question of what drives 5G penetration, Jungermann considers that to be a chicken and egg problem. Is it 5G that drives unlimited plans or is it unlimited plans that drive 5G? “It really doesn’t matter, either way it helps the operators to sell it”, he says.

It’s not just price that presents a barrier to attracting customers. Bad publicity, at least initially, was also part of the puzzle of how best to sell 5G. Jungermann says that there was a fair amount of negative sentiment visible in the Korean media: “Some people said it is over-hyped, but they still know about 5G. And a portion has actually bought it now.”

Nonetheless, the country managed to gain 1.3 million 5G subscribers by the end of June, confirming that 5G is taking off. Latest rumors, according to the Korean trade press if not yet verified by official statistics, are that the two million 5G subscriber mark has already been passed.

“I also think it is eye-opening how much usage there is, given how little coverage [of 5G] there is, so far. There is a lot of data going through 5G,” Jungermann said. Figures show that just three months after the launch, penetration of 5G surged to 6 per cent of total mobile data traffic in Korea. That’s significant, because 5G accounts for only 2 per cent of subscribers.

South Korea’s success in introducing 5G comes after mastering 4G, which Jungermann calls “already the world’s absolutely best 4G network”. All tests would confirm this, he says.

On its way to garnering more 5G subscribers, the government is positioning itself as a global leader in communication technology. Its dominance in 5G is no surprise. “Korea as a nation is ambitious. They set themselves the goal to have about 20 per cent market share globally when it comes, for example, to things like network gear,” Jungermann concludes.

Agricultural land is the best place for solar energy farms, study finds

August 9th, 2019 no comment

The team from Oregon State University described the concept of co-developing the same area of land for both solar photovoltaic power and conventional agriculture as agrivoltaics.

“Our results indicate that there’s a huge potential for solar and agriculture to work together to provide reliable energy,” said corresponding author Chad Higgins, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

“There’s an old adage that agriculture can overproduce anything. That’s what we found in electricity, too. It turns out that 8,000 years ago, farmers found the best places to harvest solar energy on Earth.”

The results have implications for the current practice of constructing large solar arrays in deserts, Higgins said.

“Solar panels are finicky,” he said. “Their efficiency drops the hotter the panels get. That barren land is hotter. Their productivity is less than what it could be per acre.”

The researchers analysed data from Tesla, which has installed five large grid-tied, ground-mounted solar electric arrays on agricultural land in Oregon.

The took this data, which was collected every 15 minutes, and synchronised it with data collected by micro-climate research stations they installed at the array which recorded mean air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction, soil moisture and incoming solar energy.

Based on those results they developed a model for photovoltaic efficiency as a function of air temperature, wind speed and relative humidity.

“We found that when it’s cool outside, the efficiency gets better,” Higgins said. “If it’s hot, the efficiency gets worse. When it is dead calm, the efficiency is worse, but some wind makes it better. As the conditions became more humid, the panels did worse. Solar panels are just like people and the weather; they are happier when it’s cool and breezy and dry.”

Using global maps made from satellite images, their model was expanded worldwide, spanning 17 classes of globally accepted land cover, including classes such as croplands, mixed forests, urban and savanna.

The classes were then ranked from best (croplands) to worst (snow and ice) in terms of where a solar panel would be most productive. The model was then re-evaluated to assess the agrivoltaic potential to meet projected global electric energy demand that has been determined by the World Bank.

Such a study could play a key role in America if the proposed ‘Green New Deal’ – backed by several Democratic presidential candidates – is adopted into law. 

Some firms have even been experimenting with floating solar panels which can be placed on large areas of unused space in the sea while minimising the land use impact.

Hands-on review: MusicLens smart sunglasses

August 8th, 2019 no comment

Judging by the steady stream of emails that arrive in the E&T inbox announcing the arrival on Kickstarter of a new gadget that’s going to change the world of consumer technology by combining two, three or more existing devices into a single unit, there are meeting rooms all over the world where bright-eyed startups pore over flipchart matrices that cross-reference functions like audio, fitness tracking and social media notifications. The business acumen comes in spotting the sweet spots where two functions cross paths to create something that’s going to be both innovative and popular.

Maybe that’s a cynical view of how the product development process works in 2019. Regardless, it’s the kind of thinking that sometimes results in genuinely useful ideas like the Aipower Wearbuds smartwatch/earbud/charging case combo that we put through its paces recently.

If we were more sceptical about the vogue for making sunglasses ‘smart’ by incorporating headphones in their arms, it was more about the state of the British weather than anything else. Yes, it’s great to picture yourself lying back in the sunshine listening to some summer sounds, or maybe the cricket commentary, without the hassle of headphones or earbuds. What about when the weather turns cloudy?

One upside of the recent heatwave which the UK has been ‘enjoying’ is that it provided the perfect opportunity to assess both the concept of audio-equipped sunglasses and how well they work as a listening experience.

MusicLens describes its distinctive specs as ‘Your first smart glasses for daily use’. Optimistic in the UK climate, maybe, but think how often you find yourself taking a walk, run, bike ride or journey on public transport in the summer and end up with sunglasses and earbuds. It might sound trivial, but one of the little things that really sold us on these for commuting was the ability to negotiate buying a train ticket without having to pause what we were listening to and remove headphones. If necessary, they’re even clever enough to pause themselves when you take them off.

This is a situation where how a gadget looks is a real dealbreaker; however good the listening experience, you’ve still got to wear it walking down the street. The ‘Modern’ style that we were supplied with is probably best described as statement eyewear that’s going to catch other people’s attention even before they notice the slight bulge on each arm that houses the electronics. At $189 you can get them in a sober black or, if you prefer, green. For the less ostentatious user, there’s the ultralight, minimalistic ‘Geek’ in black ($129), while at the other end of the fashion spectrum ‘Vogue’ ($169) comes in ‘look at me’ yellow and pink. More styles are promised for the future.

All have lenses that are impact resistant, anti-reflective, anti-scratch and offer 98 per cent anti-UV, IR and Blue Ray protection, with night-vision glasses and photochromic lenses also available. If you’re really sold on the idea – and confident about ordering from overseas – it’s possible to have them fitted with prescription lenses through MusicLens’s online optometry service.

Setup is as simple as you’d expect: just charge up, switch on and pair with your phone via Bluetooth. Control after that is by swiping your finger along sensors on each arm to alter volume, pause and start. Like a lot of similar devices it’s a technique that takes a bit of getting used to, but the advantage over earbuds, as mentioned earlier, is that you’re not going to have to keep stopping and starting to have a conversation, say, or hear an announcement of an unscheduled change to the platform at which your train is arriving.

An E&T colleague reviewed a similar ‘smart glasses’ offering from Mutrics recently and although he found them handy when cycling, the drawback in places like public transport was the degree of sound leakage that results from using small speakers positioned in each arm.

A big selling point for MusicLens is the way in which sound is transferred by bone conduction. To our ears, it was impressive, with both music and spoken word coming through as clearly as when using in-ear buds. Once you’ve got used to hearing ambient sound as well, it’s easy to subconsciously tune it out. There’s less annoyance for those around you as well. We recruited a teenager to try the glasses out with parent-annoying music at what they consider a reasonable volume and it was barely detectable in the same room.

As you’re connected to your phone, you can of course pick up calls either by tapping or setting the hardware to do so automatically after a few seconds to save you the effort. There’s more distraction from external noise than you’d get from having a chat with wireless earphones, but the sheer cool of having a conversation through your smart glasses might make up for that.

We’re not sure how appealing it’ll be to the main target audience for this gadget, but there’s a built-in FM radio as well for when you want a change from streaming music from your phone. We had trouble picking up a decent signal and – being analogue only – you won’t get a huge choice of stations, but it’s a nice idea if you want to just sit and listen to something without having to link to another device or use headphones.

Promised battery life is between 7-9 hours, which is probably as long as you’d want to use these for in one go and as long as the British weather would let you. In standby, it’s claimed they’ll stay charged for up to 48 hours.

This reviewer is old enough that the MusicLens glasses struck him as something that would have been in a funky 1960s spy thriller as the sort of thing everyone would be wearing in the far-off future of the 1980s. If you really wanted to re-enact that sort of scenario, they’ll work with your preferred GPS app, meaning you can let a voice guide you through busy streets.

For further details and to order, see www.music-lens.com.

Renewable energy supplier exempted from price caps

August 1st, 2019 no comment

In a blog post, CEO Juliet Davenport said it does “much more to support growth in renewables and clean technologies than others”.

The average cost of a Good Energy tariff is around £1,422 a year, compared with the price cap average of £1,254.

The firm lobbies for greater take up of renewables in the UK and says it is the first supplier to offer 100 per cent green energy to consumers.

Regulator Ofgem said the company could continue to charge its 250,000 customers a premium as it could locate the source of all its energy supplies.

Suppliers who claim to offer ‘100 per cent green’ energy tend to buy the majority of their electricity on wholesale markets, then buy certificates called “REGOs”, which guarantee the equal amount of electricity created from fossil fuels is matched by renewable generation.

Davenport said these companies “are taking shortcuts to offer low-cost ‘green’ tariffs which mislead customers into thinking they are choosing to support the growth of renewables, when really they are just paying for fossil fuel power and some cheap certificates.”

Good Energy uses power purchase agreements, which involve buying electricity directly from wind farm and solar generators.

“If we are going to tackle climate breakdown, individuals must be empowered to choose to be part of the solution,” Davenport said.

Ofgem had initially given Good Energy a temporary exemption in January 2019 when the cap was introduced. This lasted until the end of March, but was extended until September, then finally made permanent.

It said the decision was made because it recognised customers on Good Energy’s standard variable tariff (SVT) had chosen to be on it, unlike customers who have been on SVTs for several years without necessarily knowing.

Officials added that the support for renewables provided by the extra cash is “materially greater” than “regulatory mechanisms”.

Last month, government statistics showed that over 50 per cent of the UK’s electricity was generated from low-carbon sources in 2018.

View from India: 5G promises ‘leapfrog’ opportunities

August 1st, 2019 no comment

Around 400MHz (megahertz) of radio waves are likely to be allocated towards the 5G trials. The trial licence comes with a uniform fee of Rs 5,000. The validity, however, varies. Depending on the purpose, its duration will range between three months and two years. Apart from telecom operators, those working in research and development (R&D), manufacturing and even academia are likely to be part of the trials.

For 5G service trials, the quantum of spectrum as may be necessary and/or can be justified to demonstrate technological capabilities. For example, typical values may be up to 100MHz in the 3.5GHz (gigahertz) band, 400MHz in the 26GHz band and other potential millimetre bands, as indicated in the guidelines.

The Government of India (GoI) intends to conduct a spectrum auction for 5G services by the end of 2019. This auction will open out channels for the commercial services that 5G technology offers.

As the next generation of cellular communications technology, 5G’s evolutionary and revolutionary services can have a deep impact on India. By unfolding new economic opportunities and societal benefits, this wireless technology can be transformative. It can help the country leapfrog the traditional barriers to development as well as advance the ‘Digital India’ vision. 

While 5G trials have been announced in the media this week, the groundwork for 5G has already begun. This is evident from a 2018 report titled ‘Making India 5G Ready’. A GoI-led steering committee has presented the report of the 5G High-Level Forum.

The report has chalked out priority areas for 5G in the Indian context, beginning with deployment. It’s important to roll out 5G networks early and efficiently to maximize the value offered by this new technology. A template for this technology needs to be created. 5G’s deployment requires enabling standardised technologies and networks. These include IoT devices; millimetric band; network function virtualisation (NFV); network slicing (NS); MIMO; software defined networks (SDN); distributed or edge cloud computing, and artificial intelligence and advanced analytics. 

India’s industrial and R&D capacity in the design and intellectual property (IP) dimensions of 5G needs to be put to use. The third aspect is manufacturing, whose base needs to be expanded to facilitate semiconductor fabrication as well as assembly and test plants. 

5G requires a robust ecosystem for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that it is the next generation of mobile communications technology. It will supplement the 2G, 3G and 4G mobile networks currently deployed in India and will add evolutionary and revolutionary services. That’s not all. This frontier technology will connect multiple new devices including machines, sensors, actuators, vehicles, robots and drones to support a much larger range of applications and services. Seen as a whole, it will not only be an economic growth driver, but will also encourage innovation, R&D and patents. 

Making 5G affordable and inclusive being the priority for the government, India has the big opportunity for innovation and to lead the world in ‘inclusive 5G’ technology.

For its part, GoI has launched a programme titled ‘Building an End-to-End 5G Test Bed’ to advance innovation and research in 5G. This three-year programme began in March 2018, with a budget authorisation of Rs 2,240 million. The programme is operational in educational institutes such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras; Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Hyderabad; Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi; Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur; Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWIT); Society for Applied Microwave Electronics Engineering & Research (SAMEER) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore.  

This programme will facilitate proof-of-concept 5G prototypes compliant with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards. Academia-technology companies will collaborate to realise this vision. Work has already begun. Ericsson installed the first public-access 5G test bed at IIT Delhi in July 2018 for developing applications in the broadband and low-latency areas, providing access to the industry and institutions to work on India-specific usage scenarios and applications. The industry is encouraged to take the lead and establish more public test beds in the country.

Another development is that DoT and Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India (TSDSI) in collaboration with the IITs, have been successful in getting the large-cell low mobility (LMLC) use case accepted in the international mobile communications (IMT) 2020 requirements. LMLC reflects the needs of rural India and other similar countries. TSDSI is currently working with 3GPP to include specifications in Release 15 standard that support the LMLC use case.

All these efforts are to make 5G accessible and find mainstream usage. As per the report, 5G will enable the country to leapfrog the traditional barriers to development. 

Once that happens, 5G will be prevalent across services by 2024. It also means that 5G applications will give rise to innovative solutions. The outcome, as expected, will extend to wireless services whose business models will give a value-add to industrial, commercial, educational, healthcare, agricultural, financial and social sectors.

What does 5G mean to India? With over 300 million people in the Indian middle class living in urban areas, a variety of 5G business models for new services are likely to be successful. However, the economically weaker sections of the population will need special help to benefit from 5G technologies. Clearly, it is this segment of population living in smaller towns and villages that require special attention from India’s 5G initiatives.

Sponsored E&T webinar: How to avoid cosmetic defects on moulded parts

July 29th, 2019 no comment

As with any manufacturing process, injection moulding comes with its own set of design guidelines. Understanding these best practices will help you design moulded parts that are both structurally sound and cosmetically appealing. In this webinar, we’ll discuss what leads to cosmetic defects in plastic injection-moulded parts and, provide tips that will help you improve part mouldability.

Why you should watch:

  • Learn how to design parts to eliminate or minimise cosmetic defects helping you save time and money
  • Discover the options available to you when designing around ejector pin layouts and gating locations
  • Develop an understanding of how the texture of your part can lead to a cosmetic defect, and how to ensure the desired finish
 

 

 

Sponsored E&T webinar: How to avoid cosmetic defects on moulded parts

July 29th, 2019 no comment

As with any manufacturing process, injection moulding comes with its own set of design guidelines. Understanding these best practices will help you design moulded parts that are both structurally sound and cosmetically appealing. In this webinar, we’ll discuss what leads to cosmetic defects in plastic injection-moulded parts and, provide tips that will help you improve part mouldability.

Why you should watch:

  • Learn how to design parts to eliminate or minimise cosmetic defects helping you save time and money
  • Discover the options available to you when designing around ejector pin layouts and gating locations
  • Develop an understanding of how the texture of your part can lead to a cosmetic defect, and how to ensure the desired finish
 

 

 

BT installs 5G network in rural Wales to demonstrate driverless pod capabilities

July 26th, 2019 no comment

The benefits of the new tech were highlighted by BT at the 100th Royal Welsh Agricultural Show, with visitors able to see 5G technology demonstrations including a connected driverless pod at the showground.

The vehicle has been touted as one of the first self-driving pods in the world to be connected to a live 5G network, with the vehicles designed to be used across a wide range of environments and industries.

The pods make use of 5G to stream data in real time, including 3D mapping models, video from the on-board safety cameras and ‘infotainment’ for passengers.


Nick Speed, BT Group director for Wales, said: “5G is the next generation of mobile technology and will transform the way we live and work. We’re hugely excited about what we can do with 5G today and in the future. This activation at the showground shows one of the many possibilities for farming, agriculture and rural tourism.”

Deputy minister for Economy Lee Waters said: “It’s excellent news that 5G is now available at the Royal Welsh showground and a great way to mark the show’s centenary.

“The Welsh Government has worked closely with EE from the outset to establish a mast at the showground and it is currently the only one outside of major cities which has been upgraded to 5G.

“As part of our Mobile Action Plan we have highlighted innovation and emerging technologies, including 5G, and the importance of working with major events, such as the Royal Welsh, to improve connectivity. 5G also opens up opportunities for agriculture technology developments and autonomous vehicles and it’s great to see this innovation happening in the rural community.”

Julian Turner, CEO of Westfield Technology Group, said: “We are really privileged to showcase the first driverless pod, rural 5G solution in the world. This is a perfect opportunity to illustrate how technology can improve people’s lives in a rural setting – and what better place to show it than the Royal Welsh Show.”

EE, which is part of BT Group, became the first network to launch 5G when it switched on coverage in six UK cities, including Cardiff, in May. It will be extended to the busiest parts of ten more UK cities this year. 

Other networks have quickly followed suit, with Vodafone turning on its 5G network earlier this month and O2 recently announcing it will launch its 5G in October.

Vodafone and O2 have also agreed to share some of their infrastructure to support the new networks in order to hasten rollout of the technology and improve coverage.

High-performance flow batteries could enable grid-level green energy storage

July 26th, 2019 no comment

The innovation, described in the journal Joule, outlines two aqueous flow batteries, also known as redox flow batteries, which use chromium and organic binding agents to achieve exceptional voltage and high efficiencies. The components are abundant in nature, offering future promise for cost-effective manufacturing.

“We’re excited to report some of highest-performing battery chemistries ever, beyond previous limits,” said Michael Marshak, senior author of the study and an assistant professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Chemistry. “The materials are low-cost, non-toxic and readily available.”

Renewable energy sources provide a growing share of electrical production in the US, but currently lack a large-scale solution for storing harvested energy and re-deploying it to meet demand during periods when the Sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

“There are mismatches between supply and demand on the energy grid during the day,” said Marshak, who is also a fellow in the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI). “The Sun might meet the grid’s needs in the morning, but demand tends to peak in the late afternoon and continue into the evening after the Sun has set.

“Right now, utility companies have to fill that gap by quickly revving up their coal and natural gas production, just like you’d take a car from zero to sixty.”

Although lithium-ion can provide power for smaller-scale applications, you would need millions of batteries to back up even a small fossil fuel power plant for an hour, Marshak said. While the lithium-ion chemistry is effective, it’s ill-suited to meet the capacity of an entire wind turbine field or solar panel array.

“The basic problem with lithium-ion batteries is that they don’t scale very well,” Marshak said. “The more solid material you add, the more resistance you add and then all of the other components need to increase in tandem. In essence, if you want twice the energy, you need to build twice the batteries and that’s just not cost-effective when you’re talking about this many megawatt hours.”

Flow batteries have been identified as a more promising avenue. Aqueous batteries keep their active ingredients separated in liquid form in large tanks, allowing the system to distribute energy in a managed fashion, similar to the way a petrol tank provides steady fuel combustion to a car’s engine when the accelerator pedal is pushed.

While there are some examples of flow batteries operating consistently for decades, such as in Japan, they have struggled to gain a broad foothold in commercial and municipal operations due in part to their unwieldy size, high operating costs and comparably low voltage.

“The size is less of an issue for grid-scale systems, because it would just be attached to an already large structure,” Marshak said. “What matters is cost and that’s what we wanted to improve on.”

The researchers went back to basics, re-examining flow battery chemistries that had been studied years ago, but abandoned. The key turned out to be combining organic binding agents, or chelates, with chromium ions in order to stabilise a potent electrolyte.

“Some people have taken this approach before, but hadn’t paid enough attention to the binding agents,” said Brian Robb, lead author of the new study and a doctoral student in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CHBE). “You need to tailor the chelate for the metal ion and we did a lot of work finding the right one that would bind them tightly.”

Marshak, Robb and co-author Jason Farrell customised chelate known as PDTA, creating a ‘shield’ around the chromium electron and preventing water from hampering the reactant and allowing one of the battery cells to disperse 2.13 volts – nearly double the operational average for a flow battery.

PDTA is a spinoff of EDTA, an agent already used in some hand soap, food preservatives and municipal water treatments due to its bacteria-stymying properties. EDTA is considered non-toxic. The chemistry also uses the benign form of chromium, the same type used in stainless-steel surgical instruments.

“We got this to work at the relatively neutral pH of 9, unlike other batteries which use highly corrosive acid that’s difficult to work with and difficult to dispose of responsibly,” Robb said. “This is more akin to laundry detergent.”

“You could order 15 tonnes of these materials tomorrow if you wanted, because there are existing factories already producing them,” Marshak added.

Marshak and Robb have filed a patent on the innovation with assistance from CU Boulder Venture Partners. They plan to continue optimising their system, including scaling it up in the lab in order to cycle the battery for even longer periods of time.

“We’ve solved the problem on a fundamental level,” Marshak said. “Now there are a lot of things we can try in order to keep pushing the performance limit.”

High-performance flow batteries could enable grid-level green energy storage

July 26th, 2019 no comment

The innovation, described in the journal Joule, outlines two aqueous flow batteries, also known as redox flow batteries, which use chromium and organic binding agents to achieve exceptional voltage and high efficiencies. The components are abundant in nature, offering future promise for cost-effective manufacturing.

“We’re excited to report some of highest-performing battery chemistries ever, beyond previous limits,” said Michael Marshak, senior author of the study and an assistant professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Chemistry. “The materials are low-cost, non-toxic and readily available.”

Renewable energy sources provide a growing share of electrical production in the US, but currently lack a large-scale solution for storing harvested energy and re-deploying it to meet demand during periods when the Sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

“There are mismatches between supply and demand on the energy grid during the day,” said Marshak, who is also a fellow in the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI). “The Sun might meet the grid’s needs in the morning, but demand tends to peak in the late afternoon and continue into the evening after the Sun has set.

“Right now, utility companies have to fill that gap by quickly revving up their coal and natural gas production, just like you’d take a car from zero to sixty.”

Although lithium-ion can provide power for smaller-scale applications, you would need millions of batteries to back up even a small fossil fuel power plant for an hour, Marshak said. While the lithium-ion chemistry is effective, it’s ill-suited to meet the capacity of an entire wind turbine field or solar panel array.

“The basic problem with lithium-ion batteries is that they don’t scale very well,” Marshak said. “The more solid material you add, the more resistance you add and then all of the other components need to increase in tandem. In essence, if you want twice the energy, you need to build twice the batteries and that’s just not cost-effective when you’re talking about this many megawatt hours.”

Flow batteries have been identified as a more promising avenue. Aqueous batteries keep their active ingredients separated in liquid form in large tanks, allowing the system to distribute energy in a managed fashion, similar to the way a petrol tank provides steady fuel combustion to a car’s engine when the accelerator pedal is pushed.

While there are some examples of flow batteries operating consistently for decades, such as in Japan, they have struggled to gain a broad foothold in commercial and municipal operations due in part to their unwieldy size, high operating costs and comparably low voltage.

“The size is less of an issue for grid-scale systems, because it would just be attached to an already large structure,” Marshak said. “What matters is cost and that’s what we wanted to improve on.”

The researchers went back to basics, re-examining flow battery chemistries that had been studied years ago, but abandoned. The key turned out to be combining organic binding agents, or chelates, with chromium ions in order to stabilise a potent electrolyte.

“Some people have taken this approach before, but hadn’t paid enough attention to the binding agents,” said Brian Robb, lead author of the new study and a doctoral student in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CHBE). “You need to tailor the chelate for the metal ion and we did a lot of work finding the right one that would bind them tightly.”

Marshak, Robb and co-author Jason Farrell customised chelate known as PDTA, creating a ‘shield’ around the chromium electron and preventing water from hampering the reactant and allowing one of the battery cells to disperse 2.13 volts – nearly double the operational average for a flow battery.

PDTA is a spinoff of EDTA, an agent already used in some hand soap, food preservatives and municipal water treatments due to its bacteria-stymying properties. EDTA is considered non-toxic. The chemistry also uses the benign form of chromium, the same type used in stainless-steel surgical instruments.

“We got this to work at the relatively neutral pH of 9, unlike other batteries which use highly corrosive acid that’s difficult to work with and difficult to dispose of responsibly,” Robb said. “This is more akin to laundry detergent.”

“You could order 15 tonnes of these materials tomorrow if you wanted, because there are existing factories already producing them,” Marshak added.

Marshak and Robb have filed a patent on the innovation with assistance from CU Boulder Venture Partners. They plan to continue optimising their system, including scaling it up in the lab in order to cycle the battery for even longer periods of time.

“We’ve solved the problem on a fundamental level,” Marshak said. “Now there are a lot of things we can try in order to keep pushing the performance limit.”