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Sensor Brings Automated Monitoring to Remote Water Pumps

In thousands of remote communities with no electricity and few resources, automated monitoring of water flow in hand pumps has long been a near-impossibility.

Now, however, that may be changing. A new sensor design promises to bring a rugged, automated, low-cost solution to rural communities that rely on wells as their only source of clean water. The new battery-powered design, now being employed on a hand pump in northern Ethiopia, measures flow through the pump and wirelessly transmits the pump’s data to an IoT site, where it can be monitored. Engineers hope it can serve as a model for countless more pumps in other locales.

“There are probably a billion people around the world who get their water from hand pumps,” said Christoph Gorder, chief global water officer for charity:water, a nonprofit organization that aims to bring clean water to people around the world. “This device has the potential to have an impact on their day-to-day lives.”

The new design, being employed on a hand pump in northern Ethiopia, measures flow and wirelessly transmits the pump’s data to an IoT site, where it can be monitored. (Image source: Intelligent Product Solutions)

The new sensing system, designed by Intelligent Product Solutions (IPS) for charity:water, uses a capacitance technique to measure the flow of the water through a plastic housing inside the hand pump. The solution consists of a small printed circuit board containing the following: a Texas Instruments microcontroller; six capacitive sensors; a temperature sensor; a wireless transceiver; a GPS unit, a lithium battery; and a software algorithm that calculates the flow. During operation, water collects inside the plastic housing and the capacitive sensors “feel” the capacitance change through the plastic. As the water flows past the sensors one by one, the algorithm monitors the subsequent capacitance changes and then calculates the flow rate based on those changes.

“On a real-time basis, we sample two times per second and we use those results in our water sensing algorithm,” noted Robert Lieb, principal software engineer for IPS. “And we can tell, not only when the (sensors) are covered by water, but what percent of the (sensor) is covered by water. And that enables us to get more accurate flow measurements.” The software also uses air temperature data to make small adjustments in the calculated flow rate, Lieb said.

Data from the sensor is collected in the microcontroller’s on-board Flash memory. The unit’s transceiver sends the data to a 2G network, which forwards it to an IoT site. The IoT site can then record and report the amount of water extracted from a well over time. “We also have software that does trending to see if the flow rate has changed significantly over time,” Lieb said. “If it does, we turn the modem on and send a red flag message to alert people in the field to check it out.”

Lieb designed the unit to minimize the MCU’s power usage. Earlier versions of the technology used a smaller MCU with less RAM and were therefore unable to operate the software algorithm. By going to a bigger MCU with more Flash, Lieb said he was able to run a more comprehensive algorithm to do the flow calculations, and still keep power usage low enough to enable the unit’s lithium battery to last about five years.

Gorder said that the sensor is helping residents in the Ethiopian community by ensuring that any problems with the well get fixed in a timely manner. Such timeliness is critical for locals. “Prior to this, there was no effective solution,” he told us. “Most of the time, local communities would be on their own. If they ran into problems they couldn’t solve, the system would just stop working.”

Gorder’s organization, which installs wells in remote areas for communities that lack access to clean water, hopes to use the technology on more hand pumps. “There are so many pumps out there,” he said. “This is something that will serve as a foundation for other developments moving forward.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceToday's Insights. Tomorrow's Technologies.
ESC returns to Minneapolis, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2018, with a fresh, in-depth, two-day educational program designed specifically for the needs of today's embedded systems professionals. With four comprehensive tracks, new technical tutorials, and a host of top engineering talent on stage, you'll get the specialized training you need to create competitive embedded products. Get hands-on in the classroom and speak directly to the engineers and developers who can help you work faster, cheaper, and smarter. Click here to submit your registration inquiry today!



5 Embedded Systems Books to Read this Summer

After what felt like an eternal winter, summer has finally arrived! Undoubtedly, many engineers will shortly be heading to the beach or sitting out on the deck for some much-needed relaxation. This provides a great opportunity to catch up on some interesting engineering books, which can help carry that feeling of relaxation back into the office by enhancing those engineering skills. I have several book recommendations that I think most embedded systems engineers will find interesting and useful for the challenges that lay ahead.

For the record, other than slipping my own book into the list at the bottom, I don’t have a relationship with any of these authors. I found these books to contain useful information that I think can help make a difference in how we develop embedded systems—and that I think readers will enjoy.

Recommendation #1 – Embedded System Security by David & Mike KleidermacherJacob Beningo, Embedded Software, ESC, Embedded Systems Conference

For many embedded systems developers, security is becoming an important factor in their designs. Security typically is not one of those topics that developers used to have to consider at all. Embedded Systems Security was published back in 2012, but it contains a lot of fundamental concepts and material that don’t date themselves easily. The book starts out covering security fundamentals. It then moves into system and software considerations for security before moving into cryptography and data protection. Any developer who is interested in starting to understand security would gain a lot by reading this book.

Recommendation #2 – Real-Time C++ by Christopher Kormanyos

Jacob Beningo, Embedded Software, ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceFor any developer who is interested in writing microcontroller software in C++, this book is a must read. I absolutely loved the second edition of this book and just recently, in 2018, the third edition has been released. So it is once again in my own personal reading queue. Real-time C++ covers all the fundamentals and the advanced topics that developers need in order to write efficient, deterministic embedded software. Developers are walked through how to start writing their software in C++ step by step. I found that even if your C++ understanding is rusty or non-existent, there is more than enough information to help a developer get started using C++.

Recommendation #3 – Real-Time Concepts for Embedded Systems by Qing Li with
Caroline Yao

Jacob Beningo, Embedded Software, ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceReal-Time Concepts for Embedded Systems is a book for developers who are getting started using real-time operating systems (RTOSs). This book starts out with a good basic review of embedded systems and moves quickly into real-time concepts. Topics such as tasks, semaphores, mutexes, message queues, events flags, and many other RTOS concepts are covered. The concepts can be applied to nearly any RTOS, and I found the book to be a good reference for the engineers who attend my RTOS courses. If you are getting started or need to brush up on RTOSs, this would be a good book to start with.

Recommendation #4 – Node.js for Embedded Systems by Patrick Mulder & Kelsey Breseman

Jacob Beningo, Embedded Software, ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceWe’ve all seen from the near nonstop press devoted to the IoT over the last several years that there is a lot of development and focus going into connected systems. It’s an exciting time. But for many engineers, the IoT may very well be a bit intimidating. I found this book to be very practical in the way it was written in covering how Node.js can be used for embedded IoT devices. The authors cover several different inexpensive and hobbyist development boards, which makes it easy for readers to dig in and get their hands dirty and learn through implementation.

Recommendation #5 – Reusable Firmware Development by Jacob Beningo

Jacob Beningo, Embedded Software, ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceWell, since we are on the topic of book recommendations, I thought I would slip in a book I wrote late last year and that I have received good feedback on from readers. Reusable Firmware Development focuses on the journey that developers need to take in order to write reusable and portable software on microcontroller-based systems. I walk the reader through reuse best practices and a methodology for developing reusable software—not just at the application layer, but also at the HAL and driver layer. The goal is to help developers get away from constantly custom writing their software and reinventing the wheel every time they start a project.

I hope you find this list helpful and that it can help you improve your skills. If there are any other books that you have found to be helpful and would like to share, please add them as a comment at the end of this blog! Your fellow engineers will greatly appreciate it!

Jacob Beningo is an embedded software consultant who currently works with clients in more than a dozen countries to dramatically transform their businesses by improving product quality, cost and time to market. He has published more than 200 articles on embedded software development techniques, is a sought-after speaker and technical trainer and holds three degrees which include a Masters of Engineering from the University of Michigan. Feel free to contact him at, at his website, and sign-up for his monthly Embedded Bytes Newsletter.                                                            

(Image Source: Amazon & Apress)


ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceToday's Insights. Tomorrow's Technologies.
ESC returns to Minneapolis, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2018, with a fresh, in-depth, two-day educational program designed specifically for the needs of today's embedded systems professionals. With four comprehensive tracks, new technical tutorials, and a host of top engineering talent on stage, you'll get the specialized training you need to create competitive embedded products. Get hands-on in the classroom and speak directly to the engineers and developers who can help you work faster, cheaper, and smarter. Click here to submit your registration inquiry today!

NCMS innovation center focuses on development of next-gen additive manufacturing

NCMS innovation center focuses on development of next-gen additive manufacturing

NCMSA new manufacturing innovation center in Aberdeen, MD, part of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS; Ann Arbor, MI), will focus on developing next-generation industrial additive manufacturing technology, materials and processes. Collaboration among a cadre of engineers using world-class production resources will lead to scientific breakthroughs in metallurgy and plastics, as well as the development of factory machinery that will transform the way U.S. producers make aircraft, automobiles, munitions, medical devices and other products, said a press release distributed today by the NCMS.

Partners of the new center include the state of Maryland, Maryland Department of Commerce and Harford County, Maryland, as well as founding members 3D Systems and Applied Materials.

“3D Systems is proud to have helped NCMS lead this initiative,” said Neal Orringer, Vice President, Alliances & Partnerships, 3D Systems. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to partner with key government and industry leaders such as Applied Materials to drive innovation and U.S. competitiveness. This effort is designed to equip our military with the best technology possible at the best value to the taxpayer.”

This collaboration between government, industry and academia will advance and build on breakthrough, non-traditional technologies—large-scale additive manufacturing and point-of-need part manufacturing—that enable unprecedented speed in part production and novel designs. The goal is to provide U.S. troops with the most updated platforms and tools available, so they are prepared to face any situation, said NCMS.

Formed in 1986, NCMS credits its continued success to being an effective conduit for collaboration with world-class organizations that deliver solutions to enhance U.S manufacturing capability. Building on its extensive relationships with the U.S. Army, NCMS expands this connectivity to the Army Research Laboratory, the Army’s corporate laboratory.

“Our administration is pleased to see two years of planning and partnership come to fruition with this new manufacturing innovation center,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. “This unique consortium —which brings significant opportunities to Harford County, Maryland, and the region—will rapidly accelerate manufacturing opportunities in our state, leading to more jobs and a stronger economy.”

Ellipsys' FDA Nod Is a Major Turning Point for Hemodialysis

Courtesy of Avenu Medical Courtesy of Avenu Medical

A new catheter-based technology could provide a non-surgical option for arteriovenous (AV) fistula creation. FDA recently gave de novo clearance to Avenu Medical’s Ellipsys Vascular Access System.

The San Juan Capistrano, CA-based company’s device challenges the surgical option to create an AV fistula, which has been the gold standard for about 50 years.

“This is what we call a disruptive technology for sure,” Ed Chang, Co-Founder, Director and VP Marketing for Avenu, told MD+DI. “We liken this to lap chole. Prior to lap chole it was always done surgically. That was the gold standard until laparscopic technology entered the system. We believe the same thing is going to happen with the Avenu technology with percutaneous AV Fistula creation.”

The device can make an AV fistula or a connection to veins and arteries in patients with chronic kidney disease who need hemodialysis. In Europe where the technology has been available since 2016, patients call the Ellipsys procedure the “scarless fistula.”

"What we’ve done at Avenu is come up with an AV fistula without surgery,” Chang said. “We go in with a single catheter venous access and we go in and under ultrasound guidance we create the fistula. We actually fuse the vein and artery together and we quickly are able to remove the catheter and the fistula is formed without doing a surgery… you walk out with a band aid.”

FDA reviewed data from a non-randomized, U.S. multi-center study of 103 patients to clear the technology. Avenu isn’t the only company to receive approval from FDA. TVA Medical also received a nod from the agency for the everlinQ endoAVF System.

“Dialysis is a necessary and life-saving procedure for thousands of individuals,” said Bram Zuckerman, M.D., director of the Division of Cardiovascular Devices in FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, in a release. “With today’s action, there will be additional, less-invasive vascular access options for patients who will require hemodialysis.”

Better Imaging for Prostate Cancer Patients?

Courtesy of Blue Earth Diagnostics Better Imaging for Prostate Cancer Patients?

A new study is giving greater in insight on the effectiveness of imaging patients suffering from prostate cancer. Data from the LOCATE trial shows that the addition of fluorine-18-fluciclovine positron emission tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT) to the diagnostic work-up of patients with biochemical recurrence of prostate cancer locates previously undetected lesions and changes treatment management for the majority of patients.

Blue Earth Diagnostics presented data from LOCATE, which evaluated the test on Tuesday at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging. The Burlington, MA-based company’s test was approved by FDA in 2016.

“The objective [of LOCATE] was to access the impact of positron imaging for patient management,” Peter Gardiner, Blue Earth Diagnostics CMO, told MD+DI. “These were men with recurrent prostate cancer.”

For the LOCATE trial 213 men with biochemically recurrent prostate cancer were evaluated with 18F-fluciclovine PET/CT after having negative or equivocal findings on conventional imaging, such as a bone scan, CT or MRI.

This first prospective multi-center study was conducted at 15 sites in the U.S., including both private practices and academic settings. It focused on the association between scan positivity and the clinical variables of recurrence site, practice setting, prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level, and Gleason score (system of grading prostate cancer). Questionnaires completed by treating physicians documented changes in management after the PET study. Trial results showed that 59% (126/213) of patients had their clinical management changed by findings from 18F-fluciclovine imaging.

Of those changes, 78% (98/126) were classified as major. Disease was detected in the prostate, as well as other tissue, including pelvic and abdominal lymph nodes and, less commonly, bone. Both positive and negative scans impacted patient management. No difference was seen in the rate of positive scans or in the rate of management changes between private practices and academic settings. In addition, no association was found between Gleason score at diagnosis and positive scans.

Plans call for Blue Earth Diagnostics to push for the LOCATE study results to be published.

“There is a manuscript submitted already submitted to the urology journal and it’s undergoing review at the moment,” Gardiner said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that will be published.”

Global plastic packaging market worth $269.6 billion by 2025

Global plastic packaging market worth $269.6 billion by 2025

Grand View Research Plastic Packaging market graph chart 1

The Global Plastic Packaging Market is expected to reach $269.6 billion by 2025 and will register a CAGR of 3.9% during the forecast period that began in 2014, according to a new report by Grand View Research, Inc. (San Francisco). Increasing use of plastic packaging in widespread applications, including food and beverages, personal care, household care, consumer electronics, and construction, is likely to drive industry growth over the forecast period.

Higher demand for flexible and functional packaging, largely for packaged food, frozen foods and beverages, is projected to positively impact segment growth in the near future. Furthermore, rapidly increasing use of rigid packaging containers and canisters for industrial applications in construction, energy, and automotive sectors is expected to benefit market growth over the forecast period.

Increasing penetration of bottles and pouches in medical applications is also expected to benefit market growth. These products are being used for storage in the form of medicine organizers and packaging of medicines and drugs, on account of better chemical resistance properties.

PLASTEC Minneapolis 2018 held October 31-November 1 is part of the Midwest’s largest advanced design and manufacturing event that also includes MinnPack brings you the latest in materials and additives, injection molding, rapid prototyping, coatings, automation, packaging and more. For details, visit PLASTEC Minneapolis.

The global plastic packaging industry is expected to witness the fastest revenue growth in the food and beverages application, registering a CAGR of 4.2% over the forecast period. Key industry participants, including Amcor Ltd., Mondi Plc, Apex Packaging, Sealed Air Corp., Coveris Holdings S.A., and DS Smith Plc, are involved in the manufacture, fabrication, and distribution of plastic packaging products across the globe.

Key findings from the report:

  • As of 2017, the plastic packaging market was valued at close to $198.0 billion and is projected to expand at a CAGR of 3.9% over the forecast period. Rapidly growing demand from key application segments such as food and beverages and personal care is expected to act as a key driver.Grand View Research Plastic Packaging market quote
  • In terms of revenue, the rigid plastic packaging segment was valued at $66.7 billion in 2017 and is expected to witness steady growth in the coming years. This can be attributed to increasing use of the product for storage and transportation of chemicals and related industrial products.
  • The plastic bags segment recorded a revenue of $39.2 billion in 2017. The segment is expected to witness moderate growth over the forecast period, owing to rising concerns regarding use and disposal of plastic grocery bags.
  • The North America plastic packaging market accounted for the second-largest share after Asia Pacific. The regional market is characterized by presence of key players involved in manufacture and supply of functional packaging products globally. The market was valued at $36.5 billion in 2017.
  • Industry players have been engaged in mergers, acquisitions, and vertical integration across the value chain in order to strengthen their product portfolios and distribution network.

To request a sample copy or view summary of this report, see Global Plastic Packaging Market.

Reinventing the Healthcare Continuum with Machine Data Analytics

ColiN00B/Pixabay Reinventing the Healthcare Continuum with Machine Data Analytics

As healthcare delivery organizations navigate the dual challenges of providing high-quality medical care while facing tougher cost control measures from insurance carriers and government entities, one strategy they are turning to is optimization of both expensive equipment, as well as the entire ecosystem in which these assets operate. This is no small task, as capital expenditures for these machines totaled more than $350 billion in 2016.[1]

Innovators in many industries have adopted asset optimization strategies for several years. Now, leaders in healthcare equipment manufacturing are turning to this approach by implementing a new generation of data management and predictive analytics solutions to increase the quality, consistency and efficiency of medical equipment in support of patient care. To accelerate adoption of asset optimization solutions, manufacturers are turning to data management and predictive analytics solution providers. These players bring years of experience and best practices gleaned from deployments in multiple industries in addition to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) applications powered by machine learning to drive business impact.

Today’s medical equipment systems produce increasing amounts of complex machine data that require more advanced data transformation solutions. These solutions include deeper root cause analysis, predictive analytics, machine learning, AI and other high value support applications. Manufacturers can now provide insights far beyond basic diagnostics to help healthcare providers anticipate and address equipment failures and maintenance. Today’s industry standard of 95% to 96% machine uptime can be increased to more than 99.5%, resulting in millions of dollars per year in reclaimed revenue from operational budgets.

AI applications powered by machine learning models are being used to predict part failures in expensive imaging modalities, revolutionizing the landscape of how equipment maintenance is performed today by in-house support staff at healthcare providers, independent service organizations (ISOs), and by the OEMs themselves. For example, replacing a CT scanner's X-ray tube today is more an art than a science. It is reliant on several ad hoc data inputs based on age of the machine, number of scans performed, image quality rendered, and other subjective factors. Without proper diagnostics on machine data signals, many companies end up replacing tubes under the gun to ensure machine uptime at any cost.

This move also transforms the relationship between OEMs and healthcare providers. Manufacturers have the potential to become advocates for operational effectiveness, helping providers deploy best practices throughout the delivery of services. For example, data collected by a medical imaging machine can determine that the room in which the machine operates is too warm or too cool, and automatically reset the temperature. The machine can also analyze how long each imaging test takes and recommend additional training for operators who take excessive time in completing the test.

Because manufacturers collect data uploaded from machines and equipment deployed at many healthcare providers, they are able to collect larger and more relevant data sets with which to conduct analytics. From a predictive analytics perspective, this is a critical point. A large equipment manufacturer is able to offer predictive insights based on a dataset from several thousand machines deployed in a wide range of operating environment around the world, versus insights from 10 or 20 machines deployed at a specific facility. This leads to deeper, more accurate insights that contribute to enhanced operational effectiveness.

Working with a data transformation and predictive analytics solution provider can also result in a dramatic increase to the equipment provider’s dataset. Many machines may lack an adequate number of sensors to provide a complete picture of the equipment’s performance. It is not practical to install these sensors retroactively or for a healthcare delivery provider to wait for the next generation of equipment. Leading solution providers have the ability to integrate machine log data into the comprehensive data set, enabling manufacturers to obtain the high-quality predictive insights they need.

New advances in data management and analytics have powered this transformation. The most significant advancements include the ability to:

  • Ingest, parse and analyze structured, semi-structured and non-structured complex log and sensor data.
  • Deploy rapidly, which reduces implementation and staff costs.
  • Manage complex log data to uncover more variables for analysis than traditional solutions.
  • Integrate multiple data types to analyze increasingly complex applications.
  • Enable machine learning and predictive analytics on complex log data.

The evolution of manufacturers to provide enhanced analytics that contribute to improved operational effectiveness also enables introduction of new services. Among these:

  • “Equipment as a service” – Instead of purchasing imaging equipment, a healthcare provider might purchase x thousand scans per month on a subscription basis.
  • Automating the spare parts and service inventory and delivery system for routine maintenance and repairs.
  • Implementing fact-based versus time-interval based maintenance through predictive support to become aware in advance of potential machine failure.
  • Providing managed services through which the manufacturer continuously monitors machine performance and can often execute repairs remotely, without the healthcare provider’s involvement.

This also assists healthcare delivery providers through a current difficult demographic challenge. Older engineers are retiring at a rapid pace, often taking their institutional knowledge gained over decades of work with them. Equipment manufacturers can utilize their data and predictive analytics to capture this knowledge and seamlessly share the experiences and insights with a new generation of engineers, dramatically reducing costs associated with training and onboarding.

As healthcare equipment manufacturers re-imagine their role in providing products and services to healthcare providers, providers must also re-evaluate their relationships with manufacturers and how they can contribute to enhanced operational effectiveness. Innovative equipment manufacturers in partnership with innovative data transformation and predictive analytics solutions providers can help healthcare delivery providers navigate today’s asset optimization as well as human resources challenges.

[1] Harbor Research, “Data Transformation Drives Machine Intelligence in Healthcare,” April 2018, page 4

10 Cars that Changed the World

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceToday's Insights. Tomorrow's Technologies.
ESC returns to Minneapolis, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2018, with a fresh, in-depth, two-day educational program designed specifically for the needs of today's embedded systems professionals. With four comprehensive tracks, new technical tutorials, and a host of top engineering talent on stage, you'll get the specialized training you need to create competitive embedded products. Get hands-on in the classroom and speak directly to the engineers and developers who can help you work faster, cheaper, and smarter. Click here to submit your registration inquiry today!



Go With The Flow?

Lithium ion batteries are capturing an increasing share of power grid support applications. Tesla recently claimed to have built more than a gigawatt-hour of electrical energy storage using its lithium ion Powerpack to help support renewable solar and wind energy production. But is lithium ion technology the best choice for stationary electric power grid support? Fans of redox flow batteries (RFB) would suggest otherwise.

Pumping Electrolytes

Flow batteries (also called redox or reduction-oxidation batteries) use two different electrolytes that are each pumped through the two half cells. The cells are separated by a thin ion exchange membrane. Charging the battery causes a reduction reaction on one side of the membrane and an oxidation reaction on the other. A reduction reaction results in a gain of electrons while an oxidation results in a loss of electrons. In use during discharge, the electrolytes are continuously pumped from their tanks into the reaction cell and electrical energy is drawn from the electrodes. The only limit to the amount of energy that can be stored is the capacity of the electrolyte storage tanks.

“One of the primary reasons that DOE (Department of Energy) is interested in flow batteries is because the power and energy of those systems are separate,” Vincent Sprenkle, Manager of the Energy Storage group at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), told Design News. “What that gives you, from a grid perspective, is a high degree of flexibility. The other advantage is inherent safety. You are in an aqueous solution, so the fire hazards are not there as you would have with a pure organic electrolyte. We are doing water-soluble based systems. Also, in a megawatt hour system, you may only have kilowatt hours of it that are physically in contact with each other at any time,” he explained.

The Right Stuff

Choosing the materials for the reduction and oxidation reactions has a large effect on the flow battery’s characteristics. The flow battery concept was first used in 1884 with a zinc/chlorine battery that powered Charles Renard’s airship La France. More recently, redox flow batteries have been made from zinc bromide. This is the case for the ZCell, a 10 kilowatt-hour home energy storage system developed in Australia.

When the ZCell is charged, electrical current travels into the battery, causing zinc to be removed from the zinc bromide solution and to be electroplated onto a carbon-filled plastic electrode. The bromine gas that forms is reacted with other agents to form a thick oil. During discharge, the zinc is removed from the electrode and joins back up with bromine to make zinc bromide and an excess of electrons. These electrons travel by wire outside of the battery to power electrical devices before returning back to the opposite electrode of the flow battery.

PNNL Vanadium Flow Battery

PNNL has designed and is testing a modular 1kW/1kWh vanadium redox flow battery with an optimized stack design. The battery incorporates PNNL’s new electrolyte chemistry, delivering 80% increased power capacity and 90% increased efficiency with about half the operating cost of current vanadium redox flow batteries. (Image source: PNNL)

Another flow battery of interest was developed in the 1980s and uses an unusual property of the element vanadium. This metallic material can exist in four different oxidation states (2+,3+,4+, and 5+), depending upon the number of electrons around the vanadium nucleus. Energy is stored by providing extra electrons (during charging) to produce V2+, and V3+. During discharge, these electrons are removed to form V4+ and V5+.

The vanadium flow battery has two tanks, one containing the V2+ and V3+ cathodelyte solution, and the other tank containing the V4+ and V5+ anodelyte solution. These solutions are made up of vanadium dissolved in sulfuric acid. The tanks can store the cathodelyte and anodelyte almost indefinitely until the battery needs to generate electricity. At this point, the solutions are pumped into each side of a reaction cell that contains an ion-selective membrane.

During discharging, the V2+ oxidizes into V3+ in the negative side of the reaction cell and an electron is released, collected on the negative electrode, and conducted away by the external circuit. In the positive side of the reaction cell, V5+ accepts an electron from the external circuit, the reduction reaction creating V4+. Charge neutrality in the cell is maintained by exchanges of hydrogen ions (cations) through the membrane that separates the two sides of the reaction cell.

Vanadium is a common element used primarily in steel processing and as a catalyst. As with other flow batteries, the battery energy capacity is limited only by the size of the storage tanks that contain the cathodelyte and anodelyte solutions. The electrolyte liquids also provide good thermal regulation.

Going Organic

Because the cost of vanadium can be somewhat variable, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is working with an inexpensive organic molecule, often used in dyes and antibiotics, to replace vanadium in a flow battery. This work is described in a PNNL press release. The molecule PNNL is working with is called phenazine ((C6H4)2N2). It possesses the necessary redox properties to use in a flow battery but it is ordinarily insoluble in water. So the PNNL team worked to chemically modify phenazine—not only were they able to form a water-soluble version, the new derivative also had enhanced redox capability.

“Part of the goal is to move away from anything that can undergo price fluctuations,” explained PNNL’s Vincent Sprenkle. “We have seen lithium, cobalt, and vanadium prices double in the last year. By moving away from anything that is commodity-based metal, to something that you can synthesize and control the cost structure of, (as with) these aqueous-soluble organics, long-term, that’s the direction we want to go,” he added.

“We thought phenazine represented a really underexplored area, and when we started looking into it, we found that it indeed showed a lot of promise. We have been able to develop our system from there,” Aaron Hollas, a scientist and organic chemistry researcher at PNNL, told Design News. There were other reasons to examine organic materials for flow batteries. “There is obviously the cost advantage that we are primarily concerned with, but also we have a lot of tunability when we move from simple metal ion solutions to organics. There is a lot of different substitution patterns that we can do with organics. We can tune things like solubility and redox potential—a lot of things that we can’t do with simple metal ions like vanadium,” said Hollas.

Into the Future

Obviously, flow batteries are large in size and require pumps and electrolyte holding tanks. Thus, they are used primarily for stationary applications. They are particularly effective for load leveling and frequency control in electric power grids when batteries with both high power and high capacity are required. Flow batteries are capable of many thousands of charge and discharge cycles (higher than lithium ion). They also are capable of sitting unused for many months before starting with little or no preparation and, unlike lithium ion batteries, can be discharged 100% without damage.  Numerous utility-scale projects are underway worldwide using flow batteries of various types in full and micro-grid configurations, particularly with renewable power generation.

“We had an active program for a number of years looking at driving the cost of those systems down. So we successfully reduced the cost of vanadium systems by about half. That finished up and then last year, we started with this new system, where we are replacing the vanadium with an organic system which we think can further reduce the costs by two to three times,” said Sprenkle. Now that phenazine has been demonstrated on the small scale, next is scaling up to the kilowatt level “within the next three to four years to get this to the same state of technical feasibility as vanadium,” said Sprenkle.

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

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Supplier Stories for the Week of June 24

This is a compilation of the latest news from suppliers in the medical device industry.If you have news you’d like to submit for potential inclusion in this weekly roundup, please send a press release and any related images to with the subject line “Supplier Stories.”[Image courtesy of STUART MILES/FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.NET]