The Breakthrough Battery That The US Gave Away to China

A portion of this video is brought to you
by Surfshark. When it comes to grid-scale energy storage,
redox flow batteries (RFB) are one of the big competitors for lithium-ion batteries. In preliminary tests, RFBs can be manufactured
with longer lasting lives, be made more scalable, and are easier to recycle than other battery
technologies. Yet, after investing millions of US tax dollars
into a cutting edge RFB formula, the American government basically gave it away to China,
who is currently the lead producer of RFB. So, how did this invention flow out of the
US? And why should we even care about redox flow
batteries? Let’s face it.

Installing tons of solar panels and wind turbines
is not going to be enough to decarbonise our energy system. We desperately need cost-effective batteries
to store spare renewables and reuse them when we need them most. According to the US Department of Energy (DOE)’s
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the American energy storage capacity should
experience an over fivefold increase by 2050 to meet the country's zero-carbon electricity
demand. Funny enough, the very same department gave
away a promising storage technology to China a few years back. Before trying to make sense out of this crazy
story, let’s understand what RFBs are all about. The key components of this system aretwo electrolytes,
which are liquid solutions containing active elements in a different oxidation state. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, where a single
electrolyte floats inside the cell, in a flow battery two solutions storing the chemical
energy sit inside external tanks. During the battery operation, these electrolytes
flow from the tanks towards a central chamber. In its simplest design, this chamber, a.k.a. stack, features two half-cells separated by
an ion-selective membrane. So, what about the “redox” bit? This term refers to the red-uction and ox-idation
reactions the chemicals dissolved in the solutions are subjected to.

To be more specific, upon discharging, the
ions in one of the tank-cell pairs, called anolyte, increase their oxidation state. In other words, they lose electrons. Traveling through an external circuit, these
electrons by-pass the membrane and reach the other side, i.e., the catholyte. Here, ions take up the electrons and reduce
their oxidation state. To recharge the battery, you just connect
it to the grid and use the incoming electrons flow to reverse the redox process.

Depending on the active elements in the electrolyte,
there are various types of RFB. However, the all-vanadium configuration is
currently the most widely commercialized. So, why vanadium? Not because it’s the most beautiful element
in the world. Rather, this metal can have multiple oxidation
states, which comes in handy when you rely on the redox mechanism. By harnessing vanadium’s chemical versatility,
you don’t need to introduce any other element into the electrolytes except sulfur. Basically, you use a mild sulfuric acid solution
to dissolve vanadium sulfates.

After doing that, you’re left with two vanadium
redox couples, namely V2+/V3+ in the anolyte and V4+/V5+ in the catholyte. This removes the cross-contamination risk
implied by other designs. Which is why vanadium RFB can last up to 4x
more than any other comparable device. Lithium-ion batteries are great for short-term
applications but RFB are more apt for long-duration storage. RFB’s supply chain is also greener as their
components are more recyclable, which reduces the amount of waste ending up in landfills. It’s for this reason many believe they’ll
play a key role in the future of energy storage. Yet, this technology is nothing new.

NASA began developing them during the energy
crisis in the 70s. After three decades of lackluster results,
2006 was a breakthrough year. As several patents expired, it opened up private
companies to get their creative electrolytes flowing. Also, in that same year, US researchers started
working on an improved recipe for an RFB. After 6 years of efforts funded by over 15
million American taxpayer dollars, scientists came up with a vanadium-based electrolyte
formulation twice as powerful as similar mixtures. On top of that, their battery could perform
well for up to 30 years without showing any sign of degradation. So, what was their trick? They simply swapped the conventional sulfuric
acid solution with a blend of hydrochloric and sulfuric acid. When using this modified mixture, they increased
the solubility of vanadium, which boosted the electrolyte energy density. The benefits didn’t stop there though. The acidic mix could work on a wider range
of temperatures compared to the pure sulfuric acid solution, which reduces heating and cooling
costs. Supercharged by those electrifying findings,
in 2012 the research group leader, Gary Yang, applied to the DOE for a license to commercialize
the batteries outside of the lab. Once he signed the agreement, he launched
the startup UniEnergy Technologies.

However, because of the long time needed for
his battery to generate returns, Yang claimed he struggled to persuade US investors to sponsor
his creation. Using that as an excuse, he turned to the
Chinese company Dalian Rongke Power Co. Ltd, and in 2017 granted them an official sub-licence
to manufacture some of the batteries in China. And this is where things went wrong. But before I get into that, I’d like to
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supporting the channel. Now back to where things went wrong with this
new battery chemistry. Although the license entailed making most
of the batteries in the US, battery production gradually switched from America to China. According to people I spoke to that worked
at UniEnergy at the time, the key components of the battery were never built in the US
at all, but instead built in China and shipped to the US for assembly and testing.

To make matters worse, UniEnergy continued
its shifting of this US funded tech to outside the US by transferring its license to the
European company, Vandals Power in 2021. According to Yang, the underlying issue is
that, unlike China, the US doesn’t have the supply chain to meet production demand. Yet, this infrastructural gap wasn’t created
overnight. Over the last 10 years, China issued a series
of national policies that flowed a lot of cash out of the government coffers to scale
up vanadium RFB. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that after
6 years of development and a 300 million dollars of investment, last May a 100MW/400MWh demonstration
facility was connected to the Dalian grid. And guess who made that battery? Yep, Dalian Rongke Power Co. Ltd. While this facility is already the world’s
largest RFB, the final installation will create twice as much power.

I couldn’t find confirmation that this facility
is using the mixed electrolyte, but I did hear from sources that Dalian is currently
manufacturing the new electrolyte in large quantities. But the craziness of this story doesn’t
stop there. Remember how the license was transferred to
Vanadis Power? Well, as mentioned on their website[^18],
the company is contributing to the Dalian Rongke Power China-based project. Nonetheless, EU regulations will force Vanadis
to set up a factory in Europe. You would think that the US government should
be as reluctant as Europe when it comes to moving a US-funded invention overseas, right? Nevertheless, UniEnergy Technologies magically
got away with that twice. I can hear you already. How on earth did that happen? As revealed by an NPR investigation, the DOE
failed to enforce its own licensing rules. When interviewing DOE officials, the Government
Accountability Office found they were struggling to track their licenses because of a limited
budget and inadequate IT systems. What’s even more absurd is that a Washington-based
company, like Forever Energy, has been trying to get a license for this technology for over
a year.

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