With world population and environmental concerns growing at the same pace, the current inhabitants of the Earth have to do whatever they can to come up with alternatives that can increase their longevity on the planet. Renewable energy is one such way to curtail the damage we the humans are currently making. The latest to join the renewable energy cause is Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
According to a recent report in Bloomberg, Alphabet’s secretive research lab X is currently in the midst of brainstorming and developing a new and innovative way to store renewable energy that otherwise might have gone wasted. They’re doing so by making use of salt and antifreeze.
The report revealed that lab X researchers are creating a system that has the potential of outperforming lithium-ion batteries, both in terms of performance and price. The system being developed by the researchers is capable of operating irrespective of the fact where it is located and can go head-to-head with new hydroelectric plants and other energy storage methods when it comes to the price point.
The project is reportedly named “Malta,” but since it hasn’t been inducted as an official X project yet, it doesn’t have the same benefits as a full-blown project under the research lab X such as Project Loon.
The Malta team is currently developing an early test prototype in Silicon Valley, which features four cylindrical tanks connected via pipes to a heat pump. While two cylindrical tanks have salt in them, the other two are filled with hydrocarbon liquid or what we call antifreeze. The system is said to consume energy as electricity by creating two streams of air: cold air that cools the antifreeze, and hot air that heats up the salt. After this, a switch is flipped which helps in giving a reverse direction to the entire process meaning the hot and cold air now move towards each other. This results in creating gusts which are powerful enough to spin a turbine and produce electricity whenever needed. The system’s energy storage time period depends on how the cylindrical tanks have been insulated.
According to a statement given by Raj Apte, Malta’s head engineer to Bloomberg, the thermal salt-based storage is capable of being several times cheaper than lithium-ion batteries and other existing grid-scale storage technologies.
Apparently, the idea of using salt and antifreeze to store renewable energy isn’t something original to Malta. Scientists working in the field have earlier proven this as a plausible technique in storing energy, but Malta has contributed in making the operating temperature lower and price point much cheaper than what the scientists had apprehended.
When the entire state of South Australia had to suffer through a blackout earlier this year, the world realised that even in today’s age of technological innovation, existing electrical grids still struggle with renewable energy. The Australia episode even prompted Tesla’s Elon Musk to commit to build the world’s largest lithium-ion battery in the region. The company has teamed up with French-based renewable energy company Neoen for the same. But, it seems, Musk has now got a competitor in the field in the form of Alphabet’s Malta.
“If the moonshot factory gives up on a big, important problem like climate change, then maybe it will never get solved,” said Obi Felten, a director at X tonBloomberg. He further added, “If we do start solving it, there are trillions and trillions of dollars in market opportunity.”