May 8, 2014

Schulich researchers set sights on unlocking the potential of energy storage

University of Calgary group brings together experts in fuel cell and battery research to increase value of renewable resources

This story is Part 4 of a five-part series highlighting the University of Calgary’s strategic research theme, Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow (download PDF), and the recipients of the Vice-President (Research) Matching Funds to Advance Energy Research. The series will run from May 5-9. To read the rest of the series, click here.

The Calgary Advanced Energy Storage and Conversion Research Group (CAESR) has been awarded funding for their research in energy storage. The group of close to 15 researchers is collaborating to develop advanced electricity storage technologies that involve the inter-conversion of fuels, CO2, and electricity, as well as life cycle assessment and electricity management. These storage technologies will make reliance on renewable energy more feasible, and reduce the environmental impact of traditional energy production.

“If all of the oil that we have were switched off right at this moment, we have about two months of stored petroleum to run the planet. However, if all of the electricity were switched off, we would have about 30 minutes,” says Viola Birss, leader of CAESR and professor in the Department of Chemistry. “Our society is dependent on non-stop electricity generation, and if it were suddenly unavailable, we would be in trouble because we have so little capability to store electricity for later use. CAESR is working on developing new ways to store electricity so that we can use it later when needed.”

Leading fuel cell and battery research inspired CAESR’s approach
Birss was director of the NSERC Solid Oxide Fuel Cells Canada Strategic Research Network from 2008 to 2013, where she led advancements in catalyst development, fuel conditioning processes, new SOFC designs, and enhancing durability. CAESR’s project will leverage the University of Calgary’s international leadership in fuel cell and battery technology research. “Fuel cells are clean and efficient devices that can operate on the same fuels as we run our cars and homes, but they convert these fuels directly and quickly to electricity and heat,” says Birss. “There is no burning and no pollutants are emitting into the air through the exhaust. By tweaking some of our recently developed electrode materials, fuel cells can be used for both energy storage and generation.”

Batteries are currently the primary way of storing electrical energy, but technological advancements are required for them to be large enough to match global energy needs. “The University of Calgary has world-leading expertise in the battery field,” says Birss. “Venkataraman Thangadurai has been working on lightweight lithium batteries, and his group is on the cusp of making a big breakthrough.” Thangadurai is developing solid-state batteries that could provide six volts from a single cell, as opposed to the standard two to four volts.

CAESR is focused on developing new energy storage technologies, and examining the social, environmental and economic impacts of implementing those technologies. They will also produce a group of highly trained graduate students, ready for employment in Alberta’s growing alternative energy field. “Wherever I move through the oil and gas space, there are always people focused on new strategic thinking, clean energy, and energy storage. Companies are looking for talented people who are trained to know what Alberta needs now and in the future,” says Birss.

“CAESR’s groundbreaking research will shape Alberta’s energy future,” says Chris Clarkson, leader of the Energy Innovations research theme. “Their research offers solutions to the issues of pollution, waste and inefficiency, and climate change. Their research project is a multifaceted solution to these problems, and the University of Calgary believes it has great potential.”

Researchers driven by desire to affect climate change and raise profile of renewable energy
CAESR is focused on the future of the planet, and on increasing energy efficiency to ensure that hydrocarbon resources are being preserved. “It is not possible to turn the power from coal burning plants up and down at will. They are producing electricity at all times, and often much of it is wasted,” says Birss. “If we are not using that full throttle of fuel, we are producing CO2 needlessly. The technologies that we are developing will respond on demand based on the amount of energy needed and produced. They are also very efficient. For example, some types of fuel cells can use 90 per cent of every litre of fuel, instead of 10 to 20 per cent as we do now.”

The CAESR group is also focused on overcoming the negative impacts of current energy production methods on populations. “We see people in China wearing masks, and it’s so grey that you can’t see across the street,” says Birss. “That’s the result of combustion, and there’s little doubt that the atmospheric pollutants produced by burning of fuels are a major contributor to asthma, lung cancer, and other diseases. None of our technologies produce these problematic emissions.”

Electricity storage is also key to adding renewable energy into Alberta’s energy mix, because to use renewables effectively, their energy must be stored for times when the sun is not shining, or the wind dies down. “We can provide technology that can put Alberta on the map for clean alternatives. Alberta is looking closely at their electricity infrastructure, and is giving serious consideration to new ways of storing electricity,” says Birss. “Alberta is an energy hub, and electricity is a key component in this. With all of its talents and capabilities, Alberta should therefore be a world leader in the electricity storage area.”

The Academic Plan (download PDF) and the Strategic Research Plan (download PDF) are the roadmaps through which the University of Calgary will achieve its Eyes High strategic direction to become one of Canada’s top five research-intensive universities by 2016, grounded in innovative thinking and teaching, and fully integrated with the community. In addition to the theme of Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow, the university is building strength in five other multidisciplinary strategic research themes: Brain and Mental Health; Human Dynamics in a Changing World; New Earth-Space Technologies; Engineering Solutions for Health; and Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment.