“It is the way of this world that a ‘crazy person’ is often required for lowering the risk barriers for everyone else,” said 1998 Nobel Laureate in Physics, author and professor at Stanford University Robert B. Laughlin. “In science we like to say that there are three stages of any important new idea; the first stage is “that is crazy,” the second stage is “that is not crazy, but it will never work in practice,” and the third stage is “I thought of it first,” he continued.
Laughlin was speaking about his ideas for a reliable and sustainable energy strategy at the signing ceremony for the NADINE (National Demonstrator for IseNtropic Energy Storage) project - a joint effort by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), together with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the University of Stuttgart. This consortium intends to build a research facility to study and develop technologies for highly efficient and cost-effective energy storage systems, which Laughlin considers one of the major technical challenges of the 21st century.
Laughlin is also the initiator of project MALTA - part of Google X, Alphabet’s secretive “moonshot” development division - which has been exploring the use of molten salt for heat based energy storage. Such is the excitement around this technology, that just two years after Laughlin's breakthrough paper the project is already being spun off by Google and has attracted the attention of Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), the $1 billion investment fund led by Bill Gates and other well known millionaires including Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, Mukesh Ambani and Richard Branson - a story we covered in our July article: The Hot & Cold of it: Alphabet’s Project Malta Energy Storage Set to Spin-Off.
“I think this is a ‘global’ solution to the entire problem,” said Laughlin, speaking at the NADINE signing ceremony in Stuttgart on October 8th. “The record also shows that I backed up this assessment by placing an economic ‘bet’ with the chief asset I had: my time. It's one thing to make armchair conversations about these issues, quite another to actually act on them.”
The proposed system, as stated in Laughlin's 2016 paper, is “a thermal heat-pump grid storage technology is described based on closed-cycle brayton engine transfers of heat from a cryogenic storage fluid to molten solar salt.” In other words, power generated from renewable sources can be used to heat vats of molten salt and cool vats of an antifreeze liquid. Stored energy can then be released using the difference in temperature between the substances.
“The electricity industry is all about timing,” said Laughlin. “When you flip on a light switch, a signal travels backward along the electricity cables at the speed of light and tells the generator that it must work a little harder. In modern times, these generators are usually powered by natural gas or hydropower. In contrast, generators powered by the wind and sun do not have this ability to respond to demand. They simply deliver power when the wind blows and the sun shines.”
This dispatchability issue that Laughlin describes is the key reason that renewable energy, in most scenarios, is limited to supplying approximately 30% of energy demand, and why conventional power plants remain our primary generators. Without storage, utility companies are forced to pay twice for the same generation. In some cases, the wholesale price of electricity generated from wind farms, for example, becomes negative – meaning that the owner of the wind farm would have to pay the utility company to take its electricity.
That’s what makes high capacity, utility-scale, energy storage systems so exciting. If project MALTA can develop their system to live up to these expectations the whole power-supply landscape changes and, according to Laughlin, the obstacles standing in the way of that development are not technological.
“That’s the beauty of it. There are no technological challenges. The secret is that there is no secret. Any good turbine engineer responds to a discussion about the details of this technology by saying: “Oh, I can do that!” Energy storage is all about controlling costs, not about leveraging new laboratory discoveries. All of the scientific principles involved were already worked out in the 19th century and have long been in display cases at the Deutsches Museum in Munich,” he said.
The obstacles to all this are related to politics and economics. The combination of renewable energy and functional energy storage disrupts the status quo. While governments have the ability and capacity to develop such systems, it is the private sector who dominate power provision in most developed countries. Investment, therefore, will need to come from private firms and questions related to risk and profit must be answered before that can happen.
“The usual rule is that the person who profits is the person who takes on the risk. However, in most countries, the energy industry is private. As a practical matter, this means that using public money to develop technologies of this nature is politically problematic. Any such public expenditure would compete with private industry and/or subsidize it,” Laughlin concludes. “The entire situation is quite maddening, because governments of major countries have enough power in their little fingers to get this done.”