Illinois Tech Scientists Receive NSF Phase 1 SBIR Grant for Nanoelectrofuel Battery

A company founded by Illinois Tech scientists has received $225,000 to build an innovative nanoelectrofuel (NEF) flow battery that will store 1.5 times the energy of lithium ion batteries or three times the energy of lead acid batteries in the same volume. It also will offer the option of rapid charge replenishment, because the user can pump out discharged electrolyte and refill with charged electrolyte. The total cost for the NEF flow battery will be about half the cost per kWh of competing lithium ion batteries, and the NEF flow battery will be safer, nonflammable, and more environmentally friendly.

The company, Influit Energy, was awarded a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant by the National Science Foundation to develop a full cell for the NEF flow battery.

Carlo Segre, Duchossois Leadership Professor of Physics; John Katsoudas (PHYS ’96, M.S. ’03), senior research associate of physics; and Elena Timofeeva, research professor of chemistry, founded Influit in 2014 after initially working on the NEF flow battery under an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s (ARPA-E) grant.

In a traditional flow battery, positive and negative liquid electrolytes contain dissolved redox* salts and are pumped through an electrochemical device (cell stack) that has current collectors separated by a membrane. The liquid electrolytes exchange electrons with the current collectors, generating electrical energy in the circuit. Unlike a traditional flow battery, NEF flow batteries use suspended nanoparticles instead of dissolved redox salts to store the charge, permitting more energy density per volume than other types of flow batteries. To recharge them, you simply plug into the grid or replace the spent nanoelectrofuels with charged ones, just as in a gasoline engine, minimizing the recharging time for the customer.

The first NEF battery prototype is designed as a drop-in replacement for the lead-acid battery packs currently used in electric utility vehicles (EUVs). In the same shape factor the battery will store three times the energy of lead acid batteries at comparable cost. The Influit NEF battery uses water-based electrolytes and battery active nanoparticles made out of abundant and non-toxic earth elements. The water-based nanofluids will not react with the atmosphere, and the battery cannot overheat because of the superior cooling properties of the nanofluids.

Flow batteries are attractive for transportation applications because users can rapidly replace the discharged electrolyte with charged electrolyte, similar to refueling a combustion engine. However,to date the low energy density of traditional redox flow batteries has prevented their practical implementation. Influit Energy’s NEF battery will overcome this barrier. Once successfully demonstrated for EUVs, it also can be adapted for larger electric vehicles and grid storage.

The SBIR program is a highly competitive program that encourages domestic small businesses to engage in federal research that has the potential for commercialization. Phase I grants establish the technical merit, feasibility, and commercial potential of the proposed research efforts and organization performance.

“This SBIR project is an important milestone for us. The nanoelectrofuel battery is very R&D intensive, and validation in the full flow cell enabled by this SBIR award will significantly reduce risk in further investments and commercialization,” said Katsoudas, Influit CEO. “Within the first year, we have to validate a lab-scale battery. Phase II will get us to a full-scale prototype, and the next step will be to put it into electric forklifts and people movers, to demonstrate the battery advantages in a real life conditions. We hope to establish a pilot program with the City of Chicago for that.”