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Missouri S&T battery project could drive renewable energy in homes

This is one of the solar powered homes in the study of new lead acid batteries on November 9. 2018
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri University of Science and Technology and two companies that manufacture batteries in Missouri are teaming up on a research project that could make it easier for homes to run exclusively on renewable energy.

The university and representatives from the businessesannounced the three-year project Friday on the Rolla campus.

Northstar Batteries and EnerSys both made prototype lead acid batteries designed to store energy that comes in from solar power. They will be used at two houses at Missouri S&T’s Eco Village, and university faculty and students will help monitor the data.

“Storage is critical when you are using solar and wind,” said Mehdi Ferdowsi, professor of electrical and computer engineering. “You get a wind gust, you have a lot of power that a wind generator can generate, but people don’t want to necessarily use it at that time, so you actually have to store it somewhere."

The better the batteries, Ferdowsi says, the more efficient and practical it will be to use green energy.

The new batteries are lead acid, which is a departure from the more widely used kind of batteries in rechargeable situations. Lithium ion batteries are lighter, which is why they are used in mobile phones and electric cars.

George Mues, technical transfer manager of St. Louis-based utility Ameren, said that means absolutely nothing in grid applications.

“We don’t care how much it weighs or how big it is,” he said. “Lead is cheaper, safer, more environmentally friendly. And it’s locally sourced, which really helps us and our country.”

Mues said most research in improving batteries has been focused on lithium ion.

Alistair Davidson, of the trade group Advanced Lead Acid Battery Consortium,says worldwide need for power will only continue to grow.

“And that demand is going to be so big that it can’t be met by one technology alone. We will need a range of technologies to meet that demand. And I think that provides a huge opportunity for advanced lead batteries,” Davidson said.

The experimental batteries helping power one of the houses on the campus in Rolla. Nov. 2018
Credit Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
These are the experimental batteries helping power one of the houses on the campus in Rolla.

That opportunity is what Northstar and EnerSys are trying to take advantage of in the marketplace.

Frank Fleming, special technical advisor at Northstar, said making the advancements practical for homeowners is the goal.

“I think of this as going in at the neighborhood level, where groups of houses are run primarily on renewable energy and are connected to centralized batteries,” he said.

Fleming said if the tests go well, this kind of setup could be available to consumers in five years.

The project will provide students numerous opportunities to conduct research and analyze data. Donations of money and equipment will also provide for three Ph.D. candidates on campus.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.