This secret project has a lot of potential as it is both clever and imaginative.
Alphabet’s secretive research lab X is developing a new way to store renewable energy that otherwise might be wasted — by using salt and antifreeze, reports Bloomberg. Researchers are developing a system that can be located anywhere, has the potential to last longer than lithium-ion batteries, and competes on price with new hydroelectric plants and other energy storage methods.
“If the moonshot factory gives up on a big, important problem like climate change, then maybe it will never get solved,” Obi Felten, a director at X told Bloomberg. “If we do start solving it, there are trillions and trillions of dollars in market opportunity.” The project is codenamed “Malta,” but it isn’t an official X project yet, so it doesn’t currently enjoy the benefits of a full-blown undertaking like Project Loon.
TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN MARKET OPPORTUNITY
The Malta team is currently working on an early test prototype in Silicon Valley. In renderings cited by Bloomberg, the system features four cylindrical tanks connected via pipes to a heat pump. Two are filled with salt, while the other two are filled with antifreeze or hydrocarbon liquid. The system takes in energy in the form of electricity, creating two streams of air: hot air that heats up the salt, and cold air that cools the antifreeze. A switch is then flipped which reverses the process: the hot and cold air “rush toward each other” which creates gusts powerful enough to spin a turbine to produce electricity when needed. Depending on how the tanks are insulated, the system can store energy for many hours or days. Thermal salt-based storage has the potential to be several times cheaper than lithium-ion batteries and other existing grid-scale storage technologies, Raj Apte, Malta’s head engineer, told Bloomberg.
Lowering the cost
Scientists have previously proven this system as a plausible technique in storing energy. Malta’s contribution has been to lower the operating temperature of the system so that materials like expensive ceramics and steels won’t be needed. A working system can vary in size from a “large garage” to a “full-scale traditional power plant.”
Lab X declined to share exactly how cheap its materials are. Thermal salt-based storage has the potential to be several times cheaper than lithium-ion batteries and other existing grid-scale storage technologies, said Raj Apte, Malta’s head engineer. German engineering firm Siemens is also developing storage systems using salt for its solar-thermal plants.
But lithium-ion battery prices are falling quickly, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And Malta must contend with low oil and natural gas prices, a market reality that’s wiped out several companies working on alternatives to fossil fuels. “It could potentially compete with lithium-ion,” said Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst Yayoi Sekine. “But there are a lot of challenges that an emerging technology has to face.”
One hurdle is convincing energy incumbents to put capital into a project with potential returns many years down the road. Alphabet has the balance sheet to inspire confidence, with $95 billion in cash and equivalents. Yet the tech giant has a recent history of retreating from or shutting experimental projects that stray from its core areas of high-power computing and software.
Robert Laughlin, a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose research laid the foundation for Malta, is now a consultant on the project. He met X representatives at a conference a few years ago. They discussed the idea, and the lab ultimately decided to fund the project and build a small team to execute it. Laughin has signed off on the team’s designs, and he said his theories have been working with the prototype.
Existing electrical grids struggle with renewable energy, a factor seen when the entire state of South Australia suffered a blackout earlier this year, prompting Elon Musk to pledge to build the world’s largest lithium-ion battery there. This year alone, around 790 megawatts of energy will be stored globally, with overall capacity to hit 45 gigawatts by 2024, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which estimates the lucrative market could see $40 billion in investments by that time.