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energy storage Gravitricity
This jumble of parts will become a new energy storage system based on gravity (courtesy of Gravitricity).

Clean Power

Energy Storage Takes On Weird New Forms As Sparkling Green Future Takes Shape

New energy storage technology ranges from plain old gravity to futuristic solar-plus-gaming devices that deploy human beings as living batteries.

The energy storage facilities of the sparkling green future will run the gamut from massive infrastructure projects to Game Boy-sized hand held devices. Two examples just popped up on the radar this week, and they demonstrate how the technology itself can range from the simple law of gravity to, well, something a little more complicated.

energy storage Gravitricity

This jumble of parts will become a new energy storage system based on gravity (courtesy of Gravitricity).

Gravity-Enabled Energy Storage Tested By Scotland’s Gravitricity

First up is the Scottish energy storage company Gravitricity. It floated over the CleanTechnica horizon just a few months ago when the company announced plans for a demonstration battery that operates on gravity, deploying little more than renewable energy, winches, something really heavy, and a power control system.

If you’re thinking of pumped hydro energy storage, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. The concept is similar.

Pumped hydro deploys energy (preferably, renewable energy) to pump water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir during periods of low electricity demand. When demand increases, water is released from the upper reservoir, to flow by gravity down to a power station equipped with turbines.

That sounds simple enough, and it is. For all the whoop-de-do over the latest battery technology, plain old water — aka pumped hydro — still accounts for about 95% of all long duration, utility scale energy storage in the US.

The problem is finding suitable sites for building new infrastructure and/or exploiting existing water resources, and that’s where the Gravitricity approach could come in handy.

Sub in a solid mass for water, and you have the basic idea behind the Graviticity system. It deploys excess energy (preferably renewable energy) to raise up a large weight. When electricity demand increases, the weight goes into a controlled fall that releases energy, which is converted to clean kilowatts.

Gravitricity certainly hasn’t let any grass grow under its feet. Work on the demo project has already started up. The leading global lifting firm Huisman has taken up the task of engineering the winches and control systems, and the lattice-style tower is under way at the Leicester firm of Kelvin Power.

A Wind Power & Energy Storage Twofer, Maybe

Lattice! Say, that rings a bell. Does anybody remember way back when GE introduced a lattice-style wind turbine tower? Well, it did. The company called it the “Space Frame,” which sounds pretty futuristic, but it is based on traditional building techniques that require far less steel than conventional tube-type towers.

The Space Frame was cladded with a white covering, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly to prevent birds from nesting in the latticework.

GE was also thinking that the cladding would permit other uses for the interior of the Space Frame. They were probably not thinking about the Gravitricity system, but now that you mention it, the two seem tailor-made for each other.

Gravitricity’s demo project will weigh in at 16 meters tall and deploy two 25-tonne weights, which sounds about right for parking inside of a lattice-style turbine tower.

Why two weights? Here’s let’s have Gravitricity lead engineer Miles Franklin explain.

“In one test we’ll drop the weights together to generate full power and verify our speed of response. We calculate we can go from zero to full power in less than a second – which can be extremely valuable in the frequency response and back-up power markets,” Franklin said.

“We’ll then run tests with the two single weights, dropping one after the other to verify smooth energy output over a longer period, alongside a programme of other tests to demonstrate and refine the full capabilities of the system,” he continued.

The demo project is set for completion later this year and the data assessment phase should take about two months.

Gravitricity is already looking past the demo project to start work on a full scale 4-megawatt facility next year, so stay tuned for more on that.

How To Do Energy Storage Without Any Energy Storage

So much for the utility scale end of the scale. Over at the other end of the scale is a joint project from Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands and Northwestern University in the US, in which researchers have developed proof of concept for electronic gaming devices that can run forever without batteries.

Well actually they do use a battery of sorts. The basic idea is to use a combination of solar energy and button-pushing to ensure a continuous flow of electricity without the need for an energy storage system, other than the human body that is doing all the button-pushing.

So far the researchers have demonstrated the concept on a device the size of an original Nintendo Game Boy, and it can actually run retro Game Boy cartridges, too.

There are still a lot of kinks to be worked out, but the payoff could be huge, as it would enable the powerful global gaming industry to free itself from the entanglement of battery disposal and recycling.

If all goes according to plan, the research could also yield a superior gaming experience. The team’s “new technique of storing the system state in non-volatile memory” eliminates the need to save games, as is the case with conventional systems.

“…the player can now continue gameplay from the exact point of the device fully losing power – even if it is mid-jump in a platform game such as Super Mario Land,” Northwestern enthuses.

As for that power loss, that’s where the next steps come in. So far, the team has demonstrated a “playable scenario” for Chess, Solitaire, and Tetris on days with adequate sunlight for the solar panels, but action games are still out of reach.

The new device also lacks sound, which will disturb gamers who value an immersive experience. However, that’s besides the point. The research team is looking into other applications that involve continuous attention and interaction from a biological energy storage device, aka a person. If you have any ideas on what that may be, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Meanwhile, Northwestern makes the point that battery-free operation is a good fit for gaming culture.

“Batteries are costly, environmentally hazardous and they must eventually be replaced to avoid that the entire device ends up at the landfill. Whereas gaming reduces people’s stress and boredom, intermittent computing helps reduce gaming’s environmental impact,” they explain.

Interesting! If you’re thinking that electric vehicle drivers would similarly appreciate a battery-free ride, you’re probably right, but that’s somewhere way far off in the sparkling green future.

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Photo: Courtesy of Gravitricity.

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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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