Mar 022011
A sulfur crystal.

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New ideas for making sodium sulfur batteries could make them the answer for taming the variability of wind and solar power.

EaglePicher Technologies, a manufacturer of specialized batteries for military and space programs, is partnered with the federal government to develop a powerful battery storage technology to help utilities smooth out the ups and downs of renewable power.

It’s a familiar path for the Joplin, Mo., company.

EaglePicher began developing a battery for space applications in the mid-1980s that used sodium and sulfur components. Its model performed successfully on theColumbia space shuttle in 1997.

But by then, the focus for military and space batteries had shifted to lithium-ion models in the United States and the impetus for a sodium sulfur battery vanished in this country. EaglePicher mothballed its work.

Now EaglePicher is back in the game, working on a sodium sulfur battery with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), backed by a $7.2 million grant from the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). It was one of 37 such awards made in 2009 to foster clean energy breakthroughs. EaglePicher is funding the $1.8 million balance of the three-year project.

With Energy Department research and development budgets facing an uncertain future in Congress, the future for such clean energy partnerships is also uncertain. This week, ARPA-E will show off its grantees at the 2011 Innovation Summit in Washington, bringing together scientists, venture capital funders and elected officials in a bid for political support for President Obama’s goal of producing 80 percent of the U.S. electricity supply from clean energy sources by 2035.

PNNL estimates that more than 200,000 megawatt-hours of power from energy storage would be needed in 2030 if the United States were to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources then. The concept is to store electricity made from renewable energy when it is in surplus — such as wind energy at night — and use it during during peak demand periods during the day.

The characteristics of sodium sulfur batteries are well-suited for that. While the technology was pioneered in this country, but then abandoned, Japan saw the promise and picked it up. Its Ministry of International Trade and Industry chose it as a targeted opportunity.

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