JOPLIN, Mo. —
Capturing wind and solar energy to create electricity is a key element in the national goal of becoming less dependent on fossil fuels.
But what happens when clouds obscure the sun or the wind is not strong enough to blow out a candle? How can the peaks and valleys of variable output be controlled to create a steady stream of reliable energy?
EaglePicher Technologies, a Joplin-based manufacturer of batteries for space, military and medical applications, has come up with a possible answer to those questions.
On Friday, during a press conference at the manufacturing plant, the company unveiled the PowerPyramid — a hybrid battery that combines old and new technologies to form a cell that fits inside a portable cargo container.
“We are here to acknowledge and participate in the start of a new chapter in the story of the energy industry in the United States and quite possibly the world,’’ said Randy Moore, president of EaglePicher Technologies.
“The ability to store electricity on a mass scale solves a number of problems for our energy future,’’ he said. “For the problem of alternative energy stabilization, when the wind stops blowing or clouds pass across the sky, mass storage fills in the gaps caused by the intermittency or unreliability of alternative energy.’’
Instead of your standard ribbon-cutting ceremony, the system was commissioned with the throwing of a giant switch. After that, Moore offered a champagne toast to the future of Joplin and the jobs that are expected to be created by the new product.
After the commissioning of the battery, Gary Burton, who works as a lobbyist for EaglePicher in Jefferson City, said the potential of the PowerPyramid could be enormous.
“I know that industry is interested in this project,” he said. “They’re interested in anything that can save them money and help them manage their power costs.’’
In addition to creating a steady stream of power from unsteady sources, Moore said the giant batteries can be used to lower the cost of electrical power for an industrial user. Power purchased during daylight hours — the hours of peak demand — can be four to five times more expensive in some areas of the country when compared with the power purchased at night when demand for electrical energy falls.
Said Moore: “For the problem of peak-energy-differential cost, mass electricity storage can store inexpensive energy at night and utilize that energy in the daytime, when it is more expensive because demand is so high relative to generating capacity.’’
Moore said the PowerPyramid is not a product of a startup company. It comes from a company with a long tradition of producing reliable and long-lived batteries. He said the company’s medical implant batteries can last for 10 years. Its batteries for weapon systems can last 20 years.
“EaglePicher batteries powered the Hubble Telescope for 19 years on a spec anticipated to last five to seven years,’’ he said, noting that EP batteries power the International Space Station and more than 400 orbiting satellites.
Said Moore: “Reliability is pretty important when you’re talking about equipment hooked up to the grid.’’
Ron Nowlin, vice president and general manager of EP Technologies, said the PowerPyramid involves three chemistries to optimize the life of the battery. One layer is lithium ion, a newer and more expensive technology. Three layers are of tubular lead acid and six layers are of lead acid, one of the least expensive and oldest battery chemistries on the market today.
Nowlin said the components for the battery are put through strict quality-control tests at the company’s manufacturing site in the Crossroads Business and Distribution Park. The components are produced in controlled environments that eliminate the potential for contamination. With some of the components, robotic stackers are used to assemble the batteries. X-rays are used to verify that the battery welds are solid.
To test the battery’s operating platform and controls, EaglePicher is using one 10-kilowatt wind turbine and 20 kilowatts of solar generating capacity at its plant.
Nowlin said the platform gives potential buyers of the system an opportunity to observe a functioning unit. A selling feature for the battery will be its flexibility in that it can be designed to deliver varying levels of power in 100-kilowatt building blocks.
The unit at the plant can deliver one megawatt of power for up to two hours. That would be enough energy to operate the Crossroads plant for three to four hours, a company spokesman said. Smaller portable versions of the battery could be developed for military applications. Several cells could be linked together to create a battery as large as a football field.
A patent for the EaglePicher battery is pending.