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Oil-Free Magnetic "Lubrication" Drives New Flywheel Energy Storage Systems

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has teamed with Arnold Magnetic Technologies on new magnetic flywheel technologyThe Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Arnold Magnetic Technologies are putting together their expertise on magnetic technology and applying it to high efficiency flywheel energy storage systems.  Flywheels are ideal for storing energy from intermittent sources like solar power installations and wind farms.  The use of magnets eliminates the need for petroleum lubricants in flywheels, which otherwise depend on well-oiled conventional bearings in order to operate.


The Gulf oil spill has added new urgency to the search for sustainable alternatives to petroleum.  Biofuels and other sustainable fuels are already at or near commercialization, and sustainable alternatives to petrochemicals are in view.  Petroleum products are also being nudged aside by sustainable lubricants, and that’s where magnets come in. Ironically, magnetic bearings are commonly used in petroleum refining among other industrial uses.  If the oil industry can kick its own habit, so can we all. 

Sustainable Energy and Stored Energy

The flywheel is an ancient technology that basically takes in short bursts of energy and stores them, to be released at a steady constant flow as needed.  Until recently, flywheels were fairly inefficient because they were made of heavy materials and their bearings required frequent lubrication.  Next-generation flywheels are made of lightweight materials and are designed to operate in a vacuum in order to cut down on drag. The use of magnets instead of conventional bearings is another new development.

Passive and Active Magnets

The new partnership is focused the use of passive magnets in flywheels, rather than active magnets.  Active magnets, also known as electromagnets, require a source of electricity in order to produce a magnetic field.  Passive magnets require no such power source.  While the new passive magnetic system is being designed specifically for bulk energy storage in flywheels, it may have numerous other applications as well.  As aptly put by a Livermore executive, “the world rolls on bearings.”  A testing and demonstration prototype is expected in about six months.

A Petroleum-Free Future

Less than 300 years ago, the 13 American colonies joined in a daring new experiment in self-government and the world was running on whale oil.  At the time, most of the world thought that the democratic experiment was doomed to fail, and everybody thought that whale oil would last forever.  Now it’s time for the U.S. to dare to take the lead again.  Just yesterday in a speech in Pittsburgh, President Obama finally took an important step up to national leadership on sustainable energy with a call for shifting tax breaks and other public resources out of fossil fuels and into more productive and beneficial endeavors.   The rest is up to public support for sustainable energy that translates into political support for like-minded elected representatives.

Image: Courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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