Rechargeable aluminium for seasonal storage
A fascinating idea.
From New Atlas
Aluminum has an energy density more than 50 times higher than lithium ion, if you treat it as an energy storage medium in a redox cycle battery. Swiss scientists are developing the technology as a renewable energy stash for the European winter.
The problem is simple enough: as countries worldwide plan their moves toward zero-emissions energy, they need to deal with the intermittent nature of cheap renewable energy. On a daily basis, solar harvests most of its energy in the middle of the day, and this necessitates some kind of short-term storage solution that can park that energy in some form of battery, then release it again in the evening when everyone gets home and starts running TVs and dishwashers. These kinds of big battery projects are already installed in many areas and proving their worth.
But intermittency is a much bigger issue on a seasonal level. The further you move from the equator, the less Sun you get in the winter months. Parts of Scandinavia famously get no Sun at all for months on end – resulting in some pretty epic springtime parties, I'm told – but a much broader area is going to find itself very short on solar, every year, right when everyone's starting to crank up their heaters. The zero-carbon world needs a way to store absolutely massive amounts of excess renewable energy generated in the warmer months, then release it through the long winters. And it'll need to be affordable, or else it's not going to happen.
Researchers from Switzerland's SPF Institute for Solar Technology have been studying aluminum redox cycles for many years now, and with funding from the EU's Horizon Europe program and the Swiss government, they've just kicked off a research project called Reveal, drawing in nine different partners from seven European countries, to develop what looks like a very promising idea.
As a 2020 report from the SPF team states, a single, one cubic meter (35.3 cu ft) block of aluminum can chemically store a remarkable amount of energy – some 23.5 megawatt-hours, more than 50 times what a good lithium-ion setup can do, or roughly enough to power the average US home for 2.2 years, on 2020 figures. That's by volume – going by weight, aluminum holds a specific energy of 8.7 kWh per kilogram, or about 33 times more than the batteries Tesla uses in its Model 3.
Big fat blocks like that aren't exactly practical to work with, though, so the Reveal team proposes using 1-mm (0.04 in)-diameter balls of aluminum instead. Naturally, you lose some volumetric density here, but you're still coming out over 15 MWh per cubic meter.
There's also a higher-temperature process, running at over 200 °C (392 °F), which reacts the aluminum with steam to generate aluminum oxide, hydrogen and much higher levels of heat, more relevant for industrial applications.