It looks like a brick or paver, but a metal alloy developed by Australian scientists could hold the key to efficiently storing renewable power as thermal energy.

Key points:

  • Demonstration on a 55-megawatt coal-fired plant in Europe to take place in 2023
  • Thermal qualities of the alloy likened to the way a choc-chip muffin behaves after being microwaved
  • Peak engineering body says if demonstration is successful it could solve a worldwide problem integrating renewables on the energy grid

The patented Miscibility Gaps Alloy (MGA), developed over several years by the University of Newcastle, is being brought to market by MGA Technology.

Professor at the university, materials scientist and lead researcher, Eric Kisi, said the innovation will enable renewable energy to be used as reliable baseload power, a challenge that proponents of renewable energy have faced for decades

Unlike coal-fired power, which is regulated and controlled, renewable energy was a challenge because it is less predictable and inconsistent.

“We’ve made renewable energy compatible at grid-scale so that when the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind drops the grid still delivers power on demand,” Dr Kisi said.

Thermal properties ‘like a microwaved choc-chip muffin’

Chief technology officer Alex Post and Professor Eric Kisi from MGA Thermal pictured with a new type of thermal storage material developed at the University of Newcastle.(Supplied: University of Newcastle)

MGA Thermal will begin producing commercial quantities of its bricks in New South Wales in coming months, using close to $1 million from a Sydney venture capital firm and an Australian Government grant.

A Swiss commercial partner, E2S Power AG, plans to use MGA Thermal bricks, made from ‘readily available and nontoxic materials, to power a 55-megawatt demonstration plant in Europe, in late 2021.

“The cost of decommissioning a power plant is incredibly high, so their life-cycle management is a huge challenge,” Dr Kisi said.

“MGA blocks are an opportunity to re-deploy retired or stranded plants, turning a liability into a high value asset.”

Professor Eric Kisi is a University of Newcastle materials scientist and lead researcher into the Miscibility Gaps Alloy (MGA) thermal energy storage technology.(ABC Newcastle: Anthony Scully)

The brick’s thermal qualities have been likened to a chocolate chip muffin.

“Put it in the microwave and the chocolate is sold initially, but the energy from the microwaves melts the chocolate.

“When you take it out and bite into it, the heat that’s stored in the molten chocolate far exceeds the heat stored in the rest of the of the muffin.

“We have particles embedded in there, storing heat by melting but not disrupting the outward solid nature of the blocks.”

Facilitating a transition from fossil fuels

Alex Post is the chief technology officer for MGA Thermal.(ABC Newcastle: Anthony Scully)

Chief Technology Officer for MGA Thermal, Alex Post, said the ability to retrofit thermal storage technology into existing infrastructure made the technology affordable.

“To be able to store this amount of energy, you need to be able to do it very, very cheaply,” he said.

“The key way to doing that is to use the assets that we already have, all of these power stations, and repurposing them into these large energy storage facilities.”

Initially the technology could enable coal-fired power plants to operate in tandem with renewables, reducing the reliance on coal and eventually replacing coal.

Mr Post described the technology as a “paradigm shift in the way that we create energy”.

“We definitely need to have some way of transitioning between the traditional way of burning fossil fuels into the completely renewable technology that everyone wants to see,” Mr Post said.

“And that’s where we see ourselves, helping that transition take place.”

We’re going to need a lot of storage

Chair of mechanical engineering at Engineers Australia, Rod McDonald, was cautiously optimistic about the technology.

“What will make the technology compelling is how fast you can bring it online, how efficient it is, how much energy you practically get out of it,” Mr McDonald said.

He said it would be important for the technology to demonstrate energy losses that occur in the system.

Rod McDonald is the mechanical chair of Engineers Australia.(Supplied: Engineers Australia)

“It comes back to how we’re running the grid, that peak load and demand.

“If we wanted to go full solar, we’ve really got to have lot of energy storage.

“We need something that runs when the renewables aren’t running.”

Retrofitting existing plants with thermal storage “would solve a lot of the problems we have worldwide as a grid”, introducing more renewables while potentially saving thousands of existing power plants.

“So many of them are really quite big, and they’ve still got a lot of life left in them,” Mr McDonald said.

“I genuinely hope it’s going to be a great system.”

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