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A Zinc-Iodide flow battery using a matte photo paper membrane

On my last post, I showed the results of charging/discharging a flow battery using a ZnCl2+NH4Cl+KI electrolyte using 4 layers of Daramic as a membrane. However, while Daramic is a low cost material, it is not easily accessible for DIY testing at this moment. For this reason, I wanted to run some tests on materials that are easier to source than Daramic.

I looked for materials around my house that had similar porosity (0.1-5um). I tested several different papers that I had around but none of them worked very well. The porosity of most traditional printer papers is high, with most having 10-20um pore sizes. This means that you need many layers to prevent fast self-discharge from migration of the triiodide across the membrane. Additionally, the papers lost structural integrity quite easily.

Test using a 2m ZnCl2 + 2m NH4Cl + 4m KI electrolyte at a current density of 20mA/cm2. Four layers of matte photo paper were used as separator.

Finally, I stumbled upon matte photo paper as a potential solution. This paper has much lower porosity with <5um pore sizes. Some of these papers might even have pore sizes that are below 1um. This is important for printing photographs, as low pore sizes implies that there is less bleeding of ink when it is applied to the paper, although ink needs to be applied much more slowly to the material (reason why printing with these papers is really slow).

For my initial test, I used 4 layers of matte photo paper. The paper does have a substantially higher ohmic resistance compared to Daramic, so I had to lower the current density to 20mA/cm2. I did 4 cycles of charge/discharge that you can see above (I only did 4 because the lower current meant cycling was quite slow). The CE of 87.54% and EE of 75.72% with a capacity of 33.8 Ah/L shows that photo paper is definitely a good choice for at least the short term cycling of these devices.

On inspection, the photo paper did not show any evident degradation although dendrite penetration happened just as much as it did with the Daramic separator. The separator was also completely black, fully permeated by the catholyte solution which contains triiodide in solution when charged.

Testing a Zinc-Iodide flow battery with a microporous membrane

After concluding my work with the Fe-Mn system, I still wanted to find a system that I could use to build flow batteries. With my new flow battery systems – which I got thanks to my colleague Kirk – I have been able to test different chemistries to come up with the most practical approach for an actual DIY flow battery.

To build such a battery, I first started with a list of requirements:

  • Easy to find chemical supplies.
  • Voltage at least equal to vanadium flow batteries (>1.2V).
  • Energy at least equal to vanadium flow batteries (>25Wh/L).
  • Efficiencies at least equal to vanadium flow batteries (>70% EE).
  • Mildly acidic or basic (no strong acids or bases).
  • Ideally uses a microporous membrane (no need for ion exchange membranes).
  • Long term cycling stability (>1000 charge/discharge cycles).

There aren’t a lot of systems that can comply with all the above requirements. One of the few that seemed plausible was the Zn-I system. In this system, Zn2+ is reduced to Zn metal on the anode and I- is oxidized to I2 (which quickly gets converted to I3) in the cathode. The Zn can be plated with a good density, often at more than 100mAh/cm2 of cathode when using carbon felts.

Results of a 1m ZnBr2 + 1m KCl + 2m KI flow battery using 4 layers of Daramic as the microporous separator, carbon felt anode and cathode with a copper sheet as the anode current collector and a graphite plate as the cathode current collector. The current was 40 mA/cm2

Both the Zn/Zn2+ and I/I3 couples are kinetically very fast – allowing for large currently densities – and have large energy densities. In particular, the solubility of their salts is quite large, so achieving solutions with concentrations >6M is not a problem. At 6M, the theoretical capacity of the battery is around 156Ah/L, rivaling even LiFePO4 batteries.

There are two main problems with this system. The first is the formation of Zn dendrites in the anode, which shorts the battery, and the second, the formation of solid I2 in the cathode after a state of charge of around 66%, which interrupts flow through the battery and causes it to fail. This means that the max State Of Charge (SOC), is often limited to 66% even if no dendrites are present (which is a big if).

Luckily some publications already exist showing that we can sacrifice some efficiency to overcome some of these issues. For example, this paper uses a polyolefin microporous membrane to obtain flow batteries that work at very high current densities and which can “cure” from overcharging due to the constant “leak” of iodine into the anode side. Since the same electrolyte is used as catholyte and anolyte, there is no problem with changes in composition as a function of time.

I decided to use this paper as a template and try reproducing their results. I started by making a 2m solution (this is moles of solute per kg of solvent). You can see my results in the first image above. I was able to obtain a charge of 19.3Ah/L since the 2m solution comes out to approximately 1.5M (because the final volume is larger), this comes out to an SOC of 48%. Trying to charge the battery higher ends up generating I2 solid in my cathode and therefore killing the battery (as no flow becomes possible).

My current was also lower (40mA/cm2 vs 80mA/cm2) because my potentiostat overheated at higher densities (which means I need to build some heatsink to test these current levels). Note that I also ran at higher mL/cm2 since my closed loop is exactly 1mL/cm2 while the paper runs at half of this, meaning that their Zn accumulation per electrode area is half. I also used 4 layers of Daramic to match the thickness of their polyolefin membrane (around 900um).

Results of a 1m ZnCl2 + 1m NH4Cl + 2m KI flow battery using 4 layers of Daramic as the microporous separator, carbon felt anode and cathode with a copper sheet as the anode current collector and a graphite plate as the cathode current collector. The current was 40 mA/cm2

The CE and EE values are pretty decent, but loses from crossover of the microporous membrane are evident. These loses have an advantage though as iodine that permeates the membrane dissolves any Zinc dendrites that might be perforating it, so the battery cycling is very stable.

Since I didn’t observe any gain in SOC due to the presence of the Bromide, I tried to reproduce the results using a lower cost mixture of ZnCl2+NH4Cl+KI. This time I also increased the concentration to 4m to see if I would get a proportional gain in the capacity. The results of this test are showed in the second image in this post.

As expected, there is a drop in the CE and the EE of the device (as more crossover can happen at longer charging times) but the capacity of the battery increases proportionately as well. I was able to charge to double the amount, but the discharge capacity did not increase as much, due to the drop in efficiency. This time I was able to get 35.5Ah/L out of the battery, which is an SOC of around 42%. This is however, already higher than a Vanadium flow battery normally offers (~25Ah/L). Note that higher concentrations are not possible in my system with 4 layers of Daramic as dendrites will start fully crossing the separator at a density of around 56mAh/cm2 (while charge density in the last test is 45.45mAh/cm2).

As you can see, the Zn-I system with a microporous membrane is great. It is stable, has decent energy density, supports large currents and does not require an expensive ion exchange membrane. There are certainly potential improvements to increase the available SOC, but even at the current levels, the system would already be useful in practical applications. Higher separator thickness could also increase the CE and EE of the battery system, without much compromise to the ohmic resistance. Small modifications to the separator – such as adding a carbon coating – can also increase its selectivity and reduce the extent of Iodine migration. Note that you do not want to completely stop it as stopping it leads to dendrites shorting the battery.

I also tested some other microporous membranes that could be easier to obtain than Daramic. Interestingly enough, photographic paper – which has a pore size similar to Daramic – works just as well in this system (really cheap as far as membranes go). I will share the results of these tests in a future post.

New and improved DIY potentiostat/galvanostat for battery charge/discharge cycling

A few months ago, the potentiostat I was using for my battery cycling experiments got damaged with some liquid. The previous potentiostat I used was described in this post. Since a few years have passed since this potentiostat came out, I decided to look at the literature and find any other implementations that might have improved on that previous design. This is how I found the Mystat design, which was published in this paper.

Fully assembled MyStat potentiostat

The Mystat design features many important improvements on the previous design. It has a larger potential range from -11 to 11V and it supports current values up to 200 mA. It also doesn’t lose any of its low range current capabilities, still being able to measure currents in the nA range. The Mystat also allows for easy connection of electrodes using a “headphone jack type” adapter and uses an external 15V power supply instead of relying on the computer’s USB supply for all its energy needs.

I used PCBWay for the fabrication and assembly of the device and decided to create a shared project so that anyone interested can have their own manufactured. You can use that link to buy your own fully assembled potentiostat. The total cost for the potentiostat was around 330 USD, including the power supply and cables that need to be bought separately (links for that are included in the shared project description).

Above you can see the cyclic voltammetry of a 1K ohm resistance using the new MyStat potentiostat.

The best thing is that the potentiostat uses the exact same python software as my old potentiostat, so I was able to use a lot of the coding modifications I had done to improve my battery characterization. You can obtain my updated code here, which allows you to do battery cycling experiments charging to a final capacity or to a final potential and includes an additional display for the uAh measurement in the current cycle.

Problems with the Fe-EDDHA|Mn-EDTA flow battery system

I wrote a blog post about some of my first tests of the electrochemistry of the Fe-EDDHA|Mn-EDTA system and how I planned to build a flow battery using this chemistry. I have since been able to setup a flow battery and perform some initial experiments. So far, there are several fundamental problems with the above chemistry that strongly affects its viability. I will discuss these problems below.

Fe-EDDHA solubility and pH. The Fe-EDDHA is more soluble at more basic pH values and its solubility at neutral pH is limited to perhaps only 0.1-0.2M. Furthermore, there are several less soluble impurities present – different isomers of the EDDHA – which have to be filtered before the cell is operated. Additionally, the pH changes substantially upon charge/discharge, which causes problems with the Mn-EDTA side (you’ll see later on).

Fe-EDDHA anolyte (A2) next to Mn-EDTA catholyte (C2) solutions, both at around 0.2M.

Difficulty in working with Fe-EDDHA solutions. The solutions of Fe-EDDHA are very deeply red, basically black at the concentrations we’re working with here. This means that it is very hard to tell if there are any insoluble substances in the solution. It is also hard to tell the charge state of the solution, as it will only slowly become more transparent as the Fe-EDDHA is reduced to its Fe(II) form.

Fe(II)-EDDHA sensibility to oxygen. Once the Fe-EDDHA is reduced in the anode, the liquid becomes incredibly sensitive to any oxygen dissolved in the solution, which will quickly oxidize the Fe(II)-EDDHA back to Fe(III)-EDDHA. Given that I currently have no means of purging my system of oxygen, this makes it impossible for me to run flow batteries using Fe-EDDHA right now in a reliable way.

Anolyte and catholyte of the system. You can observe the red color of Mn(III)-EDTA appear in the catholyte (C2) as the flow battery is charged.

Mn-EDTA stability at higher pH. The oxidized form of Mn-EDTA, which is Mn(III)-EDTA, is red at a pH below 6.5 and yellow at a pH above 6.5 (you can see that yellow in a previous post). However, the yellow molecule is extremely unstable, therefore it is very important for pH to remain below 6.5. However, at a pH below 6.5 the solubility of the Fe-EDDHA drops substantially. The differences in pH between charge and discharge means that both systems are virtually incompatible, because as the Fe-EDDHA charges it induces changes of pH that very negatively affect the decomposition of the Mn-EDTA catholyte.

For all the above reasons, I decided I no longer will explore the Fe-EDDHA|Mn-EDTA system, as I currently don’t have the technical setup that is necessary to properly study it. Furthermore, the low solubility, difficulty of working with the Fe-EDDHA solutions and the problems with pH, make this system more complicated than I was hoping for, especially in a system I hoped to be simple for DIY.

I will continue to study flow batteries based on Mn chemistries, including Mn-EDTA (as these are very interesting), but I will likely change the anolyte to something that is more aligned with my current setup. Most likely I will have to compromise and use a potentially higher density, low cost anolyte, that will involve plating a metal on the carbon felt anode, like Zn. Hopefully in this manner I’ll be able to find a low cost setup to bring a DIY solution with a capacity at least in the 10-20Ah/L range.

An improved DIY cation exchange membrane with less degradation using a Daramic PE microporous separator as base

In my previous posts about cation exchange membranes, I created a membrane using cross-linked PVA over a cellulose support. For this purpose, I used a filter paper and then applied successive layers of a solution with PVA, phosphoric acid and citric acid, which I then heated to 150C to create the final cross-linked membrane. This procedure created a membrane that had high permselectivity, decent in-plane conductivity and that could be produced for very low cost.

The problem however, came from the fact that the membrane degraded in the presence of Mn3+ , which was generated when the Mn|Fe chemistry I am testing is cycled. The degradation became apparent as the red color of the Mn3+ faded with time, although no crossing of the Mn3+ across the membrane happened. There were also a lot of bubbles generated on the membrane on the Mn side, which is further evidence supporting this degradation mechanism.

These two solutions have been pumped continuously through a flow battery cell with the crosslinked PVA/daramic separator. After The left solution is 0.25M Fe-EDTA, the right solution has only distilled water. There is no evidence of any cross-over of Fe-EDTA after 24 hours.

I think that this degradation happened mainly because of the cellulose, which is the most reactive part of the structure. To try to alleviate this problem, I decided to move away from the cellulose support and try to cross-link the PVA over a more stable substrate. To achieve this I performed the same cross-linking process, but this time doing it over a daramic polyethylene separator as support.

The Daramic is a microporous polyethylene separator – commonly used in lead acid batteries – which can be purchased for very little cost (only a few dollars per square meter). The daramic has a well defined pore size that can be filled with the PVA solution. Upon heating and reapplication of the solution, the pores can be filled with the cross-linked cation exchange material, with the daramic matrix providing the main source of structural support.

This is how the Daramic membrane looks after the PVA has been applied and crosslinked within its pores.

After the material has been saturated, heated to dryness and resaturated/redried multiple times with the polymer solution (10mL 14% H2SO4, 15g PVA, 8g citric acid, 250mL of water), the Daramic is then heated to 150C for one hour to finalize the process. The Daramic film created is black and has a permselectivity greater than 95%, measured in a cell with 0.1M KCl | 0.5M KCl. The first image in this post also shows how absolutely no cross-over of an Fe-EDTA salt is seen after running by this PVA+Daramic separator for more than 24 hours. When using just the Daramic microporous separator, cross-over is seen within minutes.

The great news is that the Daramic support is made of polyethylene, so it is very unreactive. The crosslinked PVA is also way less reactive than the cellulose, enough so that it now doesn’t react with Mn3+. I generated some of this material through electrolysis of an Mn-EDTA solution, and the crosslinked daramic didn’t bubble or degrade the Mn3+ after a couple of hours.

Sadly my potentiostat broke due to a small lab accident (spilled liquid over it), so I am waiting for a new potentiostat to be delivered to perform the first cycling experiments using this new cation exchange separator.