Terrafore Looks to Cut Molten Salt Energy Storage Costs in Half

A new chemistry that lets salt expand and contract inside a capsule could bring salt storage into more realistic price ranges for solar thermal plants

2 min read
Terrafore Looks to Cut Molten Salt Energy Storage Costs in Half

As we have seen in recent months, energy storage is becoming a pretty big deal. California has the country's first energy storage mandate in place, and plants like Solana in Arizona have started trying to incorporate storage in from the beginning. Solana uses molten salt energy storage, a common idea wherein salts are heated, retain that energy for relatively long periods of time, and then discharge it by heating steam to turn a turbine. Solana, a concentrating solar thermal plant, can keep running for six hours after the sun drops below the horizon.

Storage like that, though, is still expensive. A company called Terrafore Technologies wants to cut the price almost in half. Terrafore was an exhibitor at the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy Summit this week in Washington, D.C., and the company's CEO Anoop Mathur told me he was hoping to raise $5 to $10 million (maybe from the gaggle of venture capital folks that wandered the Summit's halls) in order to scale up his process.

That process, essentially, involves creating a capsule inside which a salt such as potassium nitrate could expand and contract. The capsule itself—think of a peanut M&M, around 10 or 12 mm in size—is made of clay along with some proprietary additives surrounding a polymer layer. The polymer layer (specifically a methyl cellulose polymer), coated on to the spherical salt "prills", is designed to gasify at temperatures below the melting point of the salt. The clay layer is added on above the solid polymer, and then the whole clay-surrounding-polymer-surrounding salt package is heated to a point at which the polymer gasifies and escapes through the pores of the clay, yielding some hollow space inside (see this video for a full explanation). Further heating lets the salt melt and expand into the hollow space; the salt then cools and solidifies and can melt again to act as the thermal storage mechanism. With this system, three different salt capsule types of differing temperatures can be stored in a single tank instead of the two tanks that Solana and traditional salt storage must use—essentially one tank for the hot salts storing energy, and one for colder salts that have just discharged that energy.

"I think the tech is proven," Mathur said. He has calculated that this system could yield a 43 percent reduction in costs over existing molten salt storage, largely due to the need for only one tank. In fact, it would put the technology well on its way to the $15/kWh target for thermal storage set by the Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative. The new idea has been tested through 5000 cycles to this point, though Mathur noted the manufacturing process for the capsules—so, the central piece of this price-cutting puzzle—has yet to be scaled up. Hence, the quest for $10 million in funding.

Storage is going to be a critical part of a true renewables revolution, so big price reductions like the one this promises are crucial.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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