A team of researchers at the University of Newcastle has come up with a way to keep the lights on at thousands of coal power plants across the globe. Wait, it’s not what you think! They mean keeping the lights on at retired coal power plants. Those old power plants may be dead to coal, but they are still parked on many dollars worth of land, turbine equipment, and grid infrastructure, which means they could make suitable locations for large scale energy storage systems.
This New Energy Storage System Looks Like Bricks, Acts Like High Tech Battery
The Newcastle energy storage system basically consists of bricks that can hold energy in the form of heat, then discharge it to run steam turbines at retired coal power stations. Or, for that matter, at any power station.
The thermal storage approach is a bit different from battery-type systems, which hold an electrical charge. Thermal storage can also involve more simplicity in engineering and a longer span of charge-discharge cycles, which generally translates into lower costs.
If you’re wondering why nobody ever thought of storing thermal energy in bricks before, well, they have. A lot. The issue is efficiency. Until recent years, the state of materials science did not allow for fabricating bricks that can act as highly efficient batteries.
The Newcastle breakthrough involves a new two-component material they call MGA, for Miscibility Gaps Alloy.
Without giving too much away, the head of the research team, Professor Erich Kisi, explains that the team has “sourced abundant and readily available starting ingredients for our block so that it can be produced at a very low cost to accommodate for the scale of energy storage that’s required – they are 10 per cent of the cost of a lithium battery of the same size, yet produce the same amount of energy.”
“It offers near to 100 per cent conversion of electricity to heat and the lowest levelised cost of storing electricity – a measure of the total lifecycle cost of a facility compared to the amount of energy it is capable of storing,” Professor Kisi adds.
To ice the sustainability cake, Newcastle states that the blocks consist of “non-toxic, 100 per cent recyclable material so there is no risk of explosion or combustion in hazardous environments.”
New Materials For Old Coal Power Plants
If that sounds too good to be true, refer back to that thing about advances in materials science. The key to the MGA energy storage system is an intricate web of two materials, only one of which can melt under heat.
When exposed to heat, the meltable particles do the heavy lifting of storing energy in the form of a phase change from solid to liquid. The other particles just kind of sit there and hold everything in place (loosely speaking, of course).
The system allows for considerable flexibility of inputs. Given the right location, the MGA blocks can absorb heat straight from the Sun. They can also input heat in the form of electricity from the grid, including renewables. Industrial heat and other waste heat are other options.
The finishing touch is an insulated storage tank to hold the bricks, which can be stacked in any number like, well, bricks.
Then the question is how to recover all that thermal energy. One key pathway is to introduce plumbing to the mix, and then all that energy is recoverable in the form of superheated steam.
Energy Storage Bricks And The Death Of Fossil Fuels
If you’re thinking spinoff, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. The Newcastle energy storage storage system has been licensed to a startup called MGA Thermal, which is already working on systems tailored for for temperatures between 200°C and 1400°C.
The company also points out that the high-heat range opens the door for next-generation efficiencies in power cycles, so there’s that.
MGA Thermal has partnered with E2S Power AG to bring the MGA energy storage system to market, and if that news doesn’t send fossil fuel stakeholders running for the Alka-Seltzer, it should. If all goes according to plan, MGA bricks could help hasten the demise of gas-fired power plants as well as coal.
That’s because E2S is a new joint venture between the leading gas turbine and gas power plant consultancy group SS&A Power Development and WIKA Group, a leading energy-agnostic specialist in pressure and temperature measurement.
E2S plans on leveraging its legacy expertise to kill off fossil fuels for power generation, eventually, through energy storage.
On incorporation, E2S promptly joined the European Association for Storage of Energy, which extended a warm welcome to CEO Dr. Sasha Savic.
In a meet-and-greet public interview with EASE, Dr. Savic explained that “the primary application we’re targeting is the conversion of legacy thermal power plants into grid-scale fossil fuel free and CO2 neutral storage systems.”
Do tell! In a message on the E2S website, Dr. Savic made a pitch for continuing to build new gas power plants to replace coal- and oil-fired power plants in the near future, but he also noted that the addition of utility scale energy storage will reduce the overall need for gas power as well as coal and oil.
Dr. Savic also hammered home the point that gas power plant stakeholders are going to have to think fast about the end of gas power plants.
He explained that developers are already ratcheting down from the typical 25-30 year lifespan of a typical gas power plant, to target a shorter 20-year lifespan that will run out just about the time when when renewables can shoulder all the baseload tasks formerly claimed by gas, coal, and nuclear.
“We envisage that before 2050 the world will be ready to move almost entirely away from all fossil fuels, including gas,” he explained.
Though some gas power plants may continue to be used on an emergency basis after 2050, Dr. Savic foresees that in practical terms anybody who builds a gas power plant by 2030 is staring into a black hole — unless they can figure out a way to continue extracting value from the facility in the sparkling green carbon-free economy of the future.
Circling back around to that EASE interview, Dr. Savic made a strong case for legacy companies like SS&A Power to accelerate decarbonization by pivoting to energy storage as well as renewables. He also emphasized that the industry should be looking at a diversity of solutions, including green hydrogen.
“The need for cost-effective energy storage is getting more and more pressing with the expansion of renewable energy generation. And we will need a portfolio of solutions to address the risk of a growing mismatch between energy supply and demand in the future,” he said. “With a set of complementary storage technologies, we’ll be able to maximise the utility of the installed renewable power generation assets while minimising the investments required to provide the indispensable storage capacity.”
Great. MGA has pulled together $1 million in combined funding from the firm CP Ventures and a grant from Australia’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science to build a manufacturing plant for their new energy storage system somewhere in New South Wales, so keep an eye on that.
For those of you wondering what the US is doing on the coal-to-energy storage front, check out a bulk storage proposal for the now-defunct Navajo Generating Station in Arizona.
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Photo (cropped): Brick-like thermal storage system from MGA Thermal via University of Newcastle.
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