Using Thermal Blocks to Store Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is a long touted solution to the rising levels of atmospheric emissions. This type of energy is harvested from the sun, water, wind, biomass, and below the earth's crust. A primary characteristic of renewable energy is that it is flow-limited and naturally replenishing.

Using Thermal Blocks to Store Renewable Energy

Though a promising source of power, as with most things, renewable energy isn't perfect. One of the significant contributing factors to its imperfection lies within its lack of reliability. For example, with solar energy, power can only be harvested when the sun is out. Similarly, with wind energy, power can only be harvested when it is windy.

This knowledge, coupled with the growing consumer push for sustainable development, has yielded an array of technological inventions to help mitigate the discrepancy, predominately with battery storage.

Although there are more than a few ways to store harvested energy, such as with "batteries that contain zinc or nickel; and molten-salt thermal storage,” utilizing lithium-ion is the route that is often traveled. Unfortunately, despite the promising nature of lithium-ion batteries, they also have some flaws, like cost, size, and power capacity.

Engineers at Australia's University of Newcastle have factored in these considerations and decided to pave their own way by storing renewable energy within thermal blocks. Recently, news of their application to patent this invention has sent a wave of curiosity and enthusiasm throughout the field as the journey to a future full of sustainable development is becoming closer and closer to reality.

A Newer Kind of Storage

Clocking in at roughly the size of a brick, the engineers expect their invention to be the ideal answer to storing solar energy efficiently and for long periods of time. This is due to its composition comprising of graphite and aluminum, which are both durable enough to allow the blocks to last for up to 30 years without degradation.

Professor Erich Kisi, one of the inventors of the block and the CEO of the start-up currently producing them, MGA Thermal, explains the process. The particles "provide the latent heat, that melting energy that we're talking about. They will melt and solidify many thousands of times during the life of the block, but remain in position. They are held in position by graphite, in this case. We have other systems, but graphite is the main body."

The concept for this invention has been in the works for the past ten years when researchers at the university began looking into this type of thermal storage, named Miscibility Gap Alloys (MGA).

MGA Thermal is currently producing roughly 100 blocks per day with the hopes to bump those numbers to 1,000 and eventually 10,000 per day.

"It is most efficient when used at a very large scale. For example, a good size for a pilot plant is between 20-50 MWh of stored energy. One area where it will be deployed is with solar to capture power that can't otherwise be generated or dispatched due to inverter, grid or demand limitations when generation is at its peak (between 9 am and 3 pm) … Other areas include turning retired power stations into grid-scale energy storage and dispatch facilities and the enabling of renewably generated power to be used 24/7 for industrial process heat."

Even with graphite not being incredibly prevalent in Australia, Kisi further explains how the increase in sustainable innovation has increased its demand, making graphite slightly easier to access than in recent years. Additionally, some research suggests that there is a possibility of utilizing recycled graphite for instances such as thermal blocks.

MGA Thermal is currently partnering with Swiss company E2S Power to incorporate the use of their invention into run-down power plants. Once the energy is generated and stored into these thermal blocks, they will be taken to the power plants and used to produce steam to turn a turbine and thus, create energy.

A Future Full of Development

News of this patent comes at a time when climate anxiety and consciousness are reaching all-time highs. Copious studies and international organizations have stated the severity at which climate change remediation needs to be implemented in order to secure a safe and prosperous future for humans and the planet.

That said, with this growing awareness and unease, a plethora of technological advances and ideas have emerged that emulate the resilience and flexibility of humans when faced with an issue.

Inventions such as the MGA thermal storage unit show how much potential there is for change and bring a light of hope to shadows of doubt. Even though climate change is something that should most definitely be taken seriously and acted upon, with inventions such as these, many individuals are remaining thoroughly optimistic.

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