MGA Thermal energy storage bricks

Australian engineers patent energy-storage blocks

Image credit: MGA Thermal

A team of researchers from the University of Newcastle, Australia, have patented a material designed to store thermal energy in the form of a block, Reuters has reported. The team hopes their innovation could help ease the energy transition.

Professor Erich Kisi, one of the inventors of the block and now CEO of MGA Thermal, said his term were working on thermionic converters, which produce an electric power input from heat when they hit upon the idea to shift their work to energy storage.

“The [most important] ingredients for the bricks are the aluminium particles which provide the latent heat, that melting energy that we’re talking about,” Kisi told Reuters. “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 inventors compared the process to heating a chocolate chip muffin in a microwave. The matrix is the cake component (holding the shape when heated and rapidly distributing heat) while the aluminium particles are the chocolate chips (melting and storing thermal energy through the solid to liquid phase change). This process can be repeated thousands of times in a single block.

The aluminium and graphite blocks are known as Miscibility Gaps Alloy (MGA). Research suggests that they could perform for 30 years without degrading in reliability. Kisi said that they offer nearly 100 per cent conversion of electricity to heat and the lowest levelised cost of electricity storage.

Each block measures 20x30x16cm weighs 6kg and contains stored thermal energy of approximately 1kWh. Kisi declined to share the projected price per block. However, Kisi previously said that MGA blocks are far cheaper, safer, long-lasting, and scalable than equivalent batteries, as well as being 100 per cent recyclable.

MGA Thermal is partnering with Swiss company E2S Power to integrate the blocks into technology for retrofitting and repurposing coal-fired plants in Europe. Kisi and his colleagues hope to aid the transition from fossil fuels to zero-carbon energy sources while decommissioning boilers in a power station.

The blocks are capable of receiving energy generated by renewables, storing it as thermal energy, then using it to run the steam turbines at decommissioned power stations as a reliable baseload power alternative to coal. This could help maintain existing infrastructure and workforces associated with coal-fired plants.

“That allows these assets that are currently worth billions of dollars but will be worth nothing in five years’ time, to be repurposed,” said Kisi. “There needs to be a transition in the thinking of governments, away from short-term matters such as elections and thinking about the long haul.”

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