Friday, October 7

The battery of the future is already sold and is made of sand

The shortage of lithium for the coming decades is forcing scientists to develop new batteries that can supply an economy that has been thrown downhill without brakes towards the electric transition.

How many times have we talked here about new energy storage techniques. What if salt, what if graphene, what if sulfur… the world’s engineers have the challenge of finding a material as stable and as cheap as lithium and, what is more difficult, as available in nature.

As you know, wind and solar energy are intermittent and generate energy when it is available and not when it is needed, so the green energy transition will require huge amounts of energy storage.

This could end up taking many forms, from conventional lithium-based “big battery” installations, to flow batteries, silicon phase change batteries, molten salt batteries, iron-air batteries, gravity batteries…

Each of them has its own advantages and disadvantages. in terms of efficiency, size, location, installation costs, running costs, input and output powers, longevity and energy storage time.

This is good, as different solutions will cover different needs: some support the power grid during instantaneous demand spikes, others smooth out daily mismatched curves between renewable demand and supply, and so on.

Here we have another one, coming from Finland. Polar Night Energy says it has just opened its first commercial arena battery on the premises of “new energy” company Vatajankoskia few hours from Helsinki.

Is about a thermal energy storage system, built around a large insulated steel tank -about 4 meters wide and 7 meters high- full of sand

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When this sand is heated, by means of a simple heat exchanger buried in the center, this device it is capable of storing an impressive 8 megawatt-hours of energy, rated at 100 kW, with the sand heated to around 500-600 degrees Celsius.

When needed, the energy is re-extracted as heat in the same way. Vatajankowski uses this stored heat, along with excess heat from his own data servers, to power the local district heating system, which uses piped water to transmit heat around the area.

The heat can be used to heat buildings, swimming pools, industrial processes, or any other situation that requires heat. This helps make it extremely efficient, the company explains to Disruptive Investing in a video interview.

The company claims that it has an efficiency factor of up to 99%, which is capable of storing heat with minimal loss for months and that it has a useful life of several decades.

The sand is nothing special: the company says it just has to be dry and free of combustible residue.. In fact, the company considers it a super low cost or even zero cost storage medium.

Everything is so simple and cheap that Polar Night Energy claims that the installation costs are less than 10 euros per kilowatt-hour, and that it works in a fully automated way, without consumables, at a minimal cost.

The company says it can also be expanded, with installations of about 20 gigawatt-hours of energy storage producing hundreds of megawatts of nominal power, and with the sand heated up to 1,000°C in certain designs.

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It is possible to create underground bulk storage facilities from mine shafts in disuse, if they have the appropriate form. High pressure vessels are not needed and the highest cost is usually the piping.

The name of the company, “Polar Night”, refers to the fact that some areas of northern Finland do not see the sun during winter, as they are above the latitude (about 68 degrees north) where there is no direct sun for weeks in the dead of winter.

This sand battery, the company says, will have its biggest impact during periods like this, when its long-term storage keeps buildings cheaply and cleanly heated during the frigid Finnish winter.

Mission Innovation has estimated that the deployment of the Polar Night energy storage system to its full potential could replace enough carbon-burning heat sources to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by between 57 and 283 megatons of CO2 equivalent to the year for 2030.

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