While renewable power is becoming an increasingly integral part of the world’s energy mix, the rapid construction of new renewable power capacity leaves a significant challenge in its wake: the need to store this energy. Electricity produced by burning fossil fuels can be scaled up or down in response to fluctuating demand. However, the very nature of renewable electricity – collected when the sun shines, the wind blows, and the tides turn – means that renewable energy infrastructure must take on a distinctly different character, where electricity is produced whenever possible and then stored for later use.

This difference between renewable and traditional power infrastructure has led to an imbalance in investments in clean energy generation compared to clean energy storage. In 2019, Australia produced 55GW of power from renewable energy sources, according to the country’s Clean Energy Council, while boasting just 1.5GWh of storage capacity, with investors typically backing energy production solutions, leaving storage solutions playing catch-up.

One company looking to bridge this gap is MGA Thermal, a spin-out of the University of Newcastle, which uses a patented material dubbed ‘miscibility gaps alloys’ (MGA) to build blocks that can store excess energy generated by renewable power stations. The technology could also be deployed in retired coal-fired power stations, creating a solution that is technologically innovative and builds on Australia’s existing energy infrastructure to help deliver cheap and reliable clean power.

Efficient and effective storage

The MGA blocks consist of two components: a high-conductivity matrix featuring MGA, and a phase-change material composed of a series of metal alloys dispersed throughout the matrix as particles, which can release and store energy as they are heated and cooled, shifting from solids to liquids. With the MGA matrix holding the particles in place, electricity produced from renewable sources can be constantly pumped into the bricks, allowing the particles to melt and store energy then cool and release energy, to be collected and stored by heat transfer infrastructure for use later.

“MGA Thermal as a material is unique because of the dispersed phase change particles,” explains Arden Jarrett, business development officer at MGA Thermal. “The phase change materials mean that MGA blocks discharge thermal energy at a constant temperature ideal for heat to electricity capture.”

“These bricks can hold a large amount of energy in the form of heat, and can be used for many applications such as thermal power station conversion, off-grid storage, purpose build grid-scale energy storage, industrial waste process heat, concentrated solar power capture/storage, and commercial and residential space heating,” Jarrett continues.

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The technology is also efficient from an economic perspective. The blocks’ small, modular nature means that they can be adapted for use in a number of environments and to power facilities of varying sizes. 

The energy efficiency of the MGA also means that it is a more cost-effective storage solution than others already being used in the energy sector. According to professor Erich Kisi, a scientist at the University of Newcastle and the lead researcher on the project that would become MGA Thermal, the MGA blocks cost one-tenth that of conventional lithium batteries of the same size, yet produce the same amount of energy.

“They are solid blocks, which is useful as it cuts down on containment costs, as well as freeze and leak risks,” continues Jarrett, highlighting the blocks’ practical benefits. “MGA blocks are made of safe and common materials that make it a non-toxic material both in the short term and the long term. MGA blocks support the circular economy; we designed out waste and use recycled resources to limit the accelerating waste in the community.”

A practical solution to a global challenge

These practical benefits are of even greater significance when considering the challenges that the team at the university faced to develop the solution. The team received close to $740,000 in funding from government grants and private backing, creating unique pressure as the project grew in scale.

“Developing a solution to a global problem was of course challenging and required almost a decade of research and development at the University of Newcastle,” says Jarrett. “However, we are lucky enough to have world leaders in advanced material science on our team; with almost all team members holding PhDs and research background in the material and its properties for years.

“Scaling brings its own challenges. We have learned a lot in the process of replicating a small product from our labs to a commercial scale brick and quantity. We are in the process of outgrowing our space at the University of Newcastle; before next year we will have our own premises! Finding, securing, and setting up our new headquarters is another challenge we have experienced in scaling.”

These individual challenges for the company are echoed by wider challenges faced by the energy industry as a whole, with the need to scale new solutions a key obstacle for the energy sector in general. Jarrett pointed to figures from the Clean Energy Council that showed that 24% of electricity generated in New South Wales was from a renewable source, but 6% of this was curtailed because of a lack of effective means to store this energy. For both MGA Thermal and the renewable energy sector as a whole, delivering change on a scale that can meet ambitious climate change targets remains paramount.

“It simply comes down to cost and time,” says Jarrett. “The sheer amount of energy storage that’s needed on the grid right now, to add stability to the rapidly growing supply of renewable energy, is mind-blowing. Since making brand new energy storage systems is so expensive and takes such a long time, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for significant new infrastructure on the grid, not to mention all the levels of government and regulation approval that have to be passed first.”

Proving itself

MGA Thermal’s origins, as a technological innovation that has had to grapple with the realities of expanding into a self-sufficient company, has highlighted the importance of collaboration, and diverse decision-makers, in such projects. Jarrett highlighted the technological expertise of the University of Newcastle and the industry connections offered by the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) as key stepping stones in the development of the company.

“We are trying to solve a multifaceted global problem – doing this alone without collaboration is just not feasible,” she explains. “The University of Newcastle supported us through the research and development phase of creating MGA Thermal. They provided global connections and input, which were invaluable in the final product.

“A turning point in our journey to become a company was thanks to the CSIRO ON Accelerate and ON Prime. The team being mostly comprised of engineers, beginning the journey as a company was intimidating. CSIRO On programmes gave us the knowledge, connections, and confidence to take the leap and become MGA Thermal Pty Ltd, kick-starting the company’s commercial growth.”

The company has also partnered with the SS&A Power Group, a Swiss collective of energy and industrial companies, to form E2S Power AG. The joint venture will see the Swiss firm provide support to develop demonstration plants for MGA Thermal’s technology, aiming to build power demonstrators by 2022 at the latest.

The joint venture has also worked with a German sub-division of the SS&A Power Group to help deliver the country’s ambitious coal plant retirement plans. Coal was responsible for 28% of Germany’s electricity in 2019, but the government has committed to a $47bn plan to close down all of its coal-fired facilities by 2037 and develop new industries for coal workers and soon-to-be obsolete infrastructure. 

The German project could ultimately become something of a proving ground for the MGA Thermal solution, which has touted itself as a potential player in the retiring and repurposing of coal plants, and could demonstrate whether the company’s approach is a viable solution for power storage in the clean energy transition.

“We need to look at repurposing what we already have available,” says Jarrett. “In this case, that means all of the infrastructure of thermal power stations, which are already connected to the grid, and in many cases are being closed before end of life due to shifting policy away from fossil fuel use. This means that there are trillions of dollars in functioning infrastructure sitting on the grid or costing vast amounts of money to decommission.

“These resources that we already have available can be repurposed into clean energy storage centres, to provide an immediate large-scale solution and create even more value. Why not take the grid connection, infrastructure, and workforce and create our clean energy future with it?”