IT WAS THE YEAR the Soviet Union collapsed, Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaeda, and the lauded American physicist Richard Feynman died. Murphy Brown debuted on U.S. television, while at the cinema, Rain Man battled it out with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Crocodile Dundee II.
And while it doesn’t have quite such a recognition factor, 1988 was also the year Maria Skyllas-Kazacos, an Australian professor of chemical engineering, obtained a U.S. patent for inventing the vanadium redox battery, or VRB.
VRBs are quite something. Unlike traditional lead-acid batteries of the time, or the lithium-ion wonders of today, they store and convert energy separately. They stockpile electricity as chemical energy in two large tanks filled with electrolytic fluids, which are connected to electrochemical cells.
This allows the amount of electricity stored, and the power discharged, to be handled independently. They can be left unused for long periods with no loss of power; and the electrolyte never catches fire, unlike the more temperamental lithium-ion batteries in smartphones today.
However, VRBs are not compact like those in laptops, which is actually their strength. They’re perfect for large-scale storage: hoarding the energy generated by a wind farm, or warehousing energy for a whole city. And if you want more storage, you just build bigger tanks — there’s seemingly no limit to how big a battery can be.
Even better, the bigger they are, the less they cost per kilowatt/hour of energy stored, and unlike other batteries, they can be refuelled by pumping in fresh electrolyte. Once refilled, they respond very quickly, switching from storage to discharge in fractions of a second with efficiency levels of 80%.
Skyllas-Kazacos’s invention should have changed the world — but didn’t. Why? Like many of the most interesting energy storage technologies of the past 30 years, it was largely ignored because the world was still stuck in a 19th century way of thinking about electricity.