Markets for aluminium and sulphur may be set to soar in the future as researchers at MIT have found the materials can be used to produce batteries that will help to power the green energy era. The fire-resistant batteries could be a feasible, inexpensive power solution and a backup for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind when they fail to create sufficient energy.

They are cheap compared to current lithium-ion batteries, which are too pricey for large-scale power systems as well as expensive – and not always as safe due to the flammable electrolyte they contain – for running vehicles (which contain small-scale power systems). The batteries’ low cost is due to the abundant, inexpensive materials they contain.

Aluminium is classified as an earth-abundant metal – the second-most abundant metal on Earth, while sulphur is reportedly the 16th-most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Sulphur is also the cheapest non-metal element.

About the batteries

One of the 16 researchers from various US universities involved in the project, Donald Sadoway, an MIT Professor, said “I wanted to invent something better, much better, than lithium-ion batteries for small-scale stationary storage, and ultimately for automotive use.”

The batteries would be capable of operating in installations large enough to provide enough electricity for a small home or small to medium business, with some tens of kilowatt-hours-worth of storage capacity. They are also a good solution for charging stations for electric vehicles, and would be capable of charging them quickly enough for it to be practical for when EVs become more widely used.

Sulphur and aluminium act as the two electrode materials in the batteries. Between the two electrodes is a molten salt electrolyte.

Resilient batteries

The battery cells were found to withstand hundreds of cycles at charging rates that were exceedingly high in the researchers’ experiments. They also found that the charging rates were faster at 110 degrees Celsius than at 25 degrees Celsius. In addition, the predicted cost per cell is approximately one-sixth of the price of lithium-ion cells.

No external source of heat is needed for the battery to keep up its operating temperature, as charging and discharging the battery causes heat to be produced electrochemically.

No odours to worry about

Some may question whether it’s possible that sulphur used in the batteries could create the rotten-egg smell it produces in some forms. According to Sadoway, the answer is no. He says, “The rotten-egg smell is in the gas, hydrogen sulfide. This is elemental sulfur, and it’s going to be enclosed inside the cells.”

Mining materials of the future

Should this power solution be widely adopted, demand for aluminium and sulphur will likely soar and become a large part of the mining sector, as well as create jobs for manufacturers and workers in possible new aluminium and sulphur mines.

What do you think? Could this be a good power alternative in the years to come? Let us know in the comments below.

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