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Alloys, lignin and gravity – energy storage is getting interesting

Energy Vault has developed a utility-scale energy storage system that uses the forces of gravity to generate electricity

Lithium batteries made headlines again recently for all the wrong reasons when the battery on a Sydney woman’s e-bike exploded and burned the house down.

This of course set off the climate-denial crowd with a bunch of hysteria, because they apparently can’t tell the difference between one faulty product and an entire class of technology.

The company selling the bikes, Glow Worm in Sydney, promptly issued a recall, and the owner of the bike promptly replaced the battery and is now in the process of replacing her house.

It’s not the first time poor quality lithium batteries have made the news, and safety is not the only question that’s been raised about lithium. Others include supply chain issues such as the sourcing of lithium from regions where human rights, indigenous rights and environmental impacts are a concern.

There’s momentum around Australia’s own onshore lithium supplies, which is why there’s a massive lithium battery factory planned for Darwin. But the whole class of lithium technology could also find itself challenged by the good old forces of technological competition.

Could lithium be the Betamax of energy storage?

A Swiss company, Energy Vault, has developed a utility-scale energy storage system that uses the forces of gravity to generate electricity. It is literally a crane assembly and a pile of bricks made from waste materials otherwise destined for landfill such as post-demolition concrete rubble, steel sludge, contaminated soils or industrial ash.

When wind or solar is delivering power, the crane stacks the bricks up. When energy needs to be released from storage, down come the bricks and the mechanical and gravitational energy is converted to electrical energy. The elegance and eco-friendliness of the technology impressed Fast Company, which awarded the company the World Changing Idea 2019 Award in the Energy category.

CSIRO’s ON Accelerate research program is also fostering a rival to lithium, with company MGA Thermal developing new materials called “miscibility gap alloys” that can store wind or solar energy more cheaply than lithium-ion storage systems.

Another home-grown innovation recently announced is Gelion Endure, and energy storage platform developed by Gelion Technologies, a company spun out of research by University of Sydney Professor of Chemistry Thomas Maschmeyer, winner of the 2018 Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science.

The technology is a low-cost zinc-bromide battery, which has been in development since 2014 and is now ready for commercial launch on the global market.

Its first deployment will be at the university, where it will be used to power mobile light towers after dark.

“The University of Sydney has been an unwavering supporter of Gelion from the outset and our continued relationship speaks to its growing reputation in high-impact innovation and technology translation to further positive societal outcomes,” Maschmeyer said.

“As the global economy switches from fossil fuels to renewable energy, storage systems will become increasingly important.”

According to Gelion’s chief executive, Rob Fitzpatrick, the global storage market is now worth between $60 billion and $70 billion.

German company CMBlu has also based its new storage system on chemistry, but the biomimicry kind.

It has reached prototype stage on an organic redox flow battery using lignin – plant fibre – and mimicking the citric acid cycle in the human body.

It has partnered with another German firm, MANN + HUMMEL, to scale up the concept.

It’s also looking to waste as a feedstock for the platform, as lignin is a waste stream from the paper and pulp manufacturing sector that is often incinerated due to lack of recycling options.

The companies are targeting utility-scale applications and also taking into consideration the electric vehicle sector and the need to provide safe and cost-effective charging infrastructure.

“Our concept is based on the mode of energy in the human body. In the citric acid cycle the body also uses a redox reaction of organic molecules. We have now succeeded in applying this principle to large-scale storage of electrical energy,” CMBlu CEO Peter Geigle says.

“For this purpose we use the mostly unused resource of lignin, which is readily available in unlimited quantities and accrues in amounts of millions of tonnes annually in the pulp and paper industry.”

Meanwhile in the political arena…

This Saturday we’ll all troop off for our democracy sausage and one of the big choices is whether we vote for an energy policy that is more of the same, or one that actually offers some good stuff and less of the same.

The Coalition are only making promises around storage at scale – Snowy 2.0 and large-scale pumped hydro in Tasmania as part of the whole “Battery of the Nation” spiel.

They are also promising more power stations, with 12 “shortlisted” “technology-neutral” projects including more new coal, more new gas and some renewables also.

It’s hard to get excited when most of their focus is about tweaking pricing and market conditions – including making more gas affordable for more people.

Oh, and more new coal-fired power. It’s really hard to see the good economic management thinking in that little nugget.

Labor meanwhile has added to their pitch for the climate vote with pledges around making solar power storage more affordable for households.

The Smart Energy Council have given the pledge the tick of approval, noting the combination of promises could see the average household save between 60-80 per cent on energy bills.

Labor has promised a $2000 rebate for batteries for 100,000 battery installations in households with a gross annual income of less than $180,000 and also providing low-cost financing through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to help reach a national target of one million household battery storage systems by 2025.

The rebate would be on top of existing rebates.

Labor has also promised to back on-shore battery research and manufacturing by supporting Deakin University at Geelong with $2 million to establish a sodium-ion battery pilot facility.

The batteries initiative is part of the broader $57 million Electric Vehicle Manufacturing and Innovation Strategy package.

“This new facility will build on the work of Deakin, which has invested significantly in developing improved energy storage, with our BatTRI-Hub centre led out of the world-leading Institute for Frontier Materials, along with current construction of a $30 million Renewable Energy Microgrid set to power the University’s Waurn Ponds Campus,” Deakin Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander says.

“The emerging technology of sodium for use in batteries has the potential to offer safer and lower-cost battery technology for the kind of large-scale storage that will be required by the electric vehicle industry and for commercial and residential use into the future.

“This includes for the commercial vehicle industry, which could help to revolutionise the environmental impact of heavy vehicles.”

You know it’s real when it has a Code

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is taking energy storage seriously too – including the need to keep the cowboys at bay, or at least institute a red flag system.

A new Energy Tech Consumer Code is now out for public comment until COB Wednesday, 22 May.

The application for a Code to be put in place was jointly lodged by the Clean Energy Council, the Australian Energy Council, the Smart Energy Council and Energy Consumers Australia.

It covers solar generation systems, energy storage systems, electric vehicle charging and other emerging products.

The proposed Consumer Code will set minimum standards of good practice and consumer protection for the whole market-to-consumer process including promotion, quoting, contracts, finance and payments, installation, operation, customer service, warranties and complaints handling processes.

Read the draft Code and have your say here.

One final note

All of us probably have that one friend, the one that really doesn’t think climate change should influence their vote. It might be worth showing them this astonishing [and entertaining, albeit sweary] rant by the Mr Rogers of science communication – Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Vote like the world is a BBQ hotplate and you and your loved ones are the sausages – because we are.

  

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Comments

3 Responses to “Alloys, lignin and gravity – energy storage is getting interesting”

  • warri oviedo says:

    Sounds progressive.

  • Great work Willow (as always 😉 ) itd be good to cover the topic of thermal storage if it hasnt already been written about. My understanding is it can be a much lower cost (and safer) then electric storage. Let me know if you need any contacts? Cheers Phil

  • Geoff Little says:

    Great article. News from the fringe of energy.,
    change inevitably comes from the fringe, not the entrenched incumbents.. Lazy links to the source material would be useful for the nerds like me, but it is ok—

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