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Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Cheaper, Greener Planet for all

A guest post by Eve Pearce

The continuing consumption of fossil fuels is problematic both to society and to the environment. Sources of energy that were derived from an earth that was once fertile and prosperous are being devoured by people’s lust after new technologies, bigger cities and an ever growing population -  the earth has become saturated with consumers and is rapidly failing to meet the demand.

A seemingly valid source of a potential solution are green electricity suppliers; a rapidly growing area of the economy that supplies energy via renewable sources such as: solar, wind, hydraulic, geothermal and biomass. However there are many problems with the ‘green energy’ sector including a major concern over how to store enough of the energy to meet demand from the grid. If the supply is not large enough, and cannot be maintained at an industrial level, the technology will remain more or less redundant. As renewable energy is renowned in many cases for being inconsistent and consequently unreliable, a suitable storage device must be developed that is suitable for grid level storage that is cost effective so it can compete with the current market price whilst being relatively silent and remaining emission free so as not to defeat the purpose of having such an energy resource in the first place.
The Solution 
The resolution to the multitude of problems presented by non-renewable energy sources is quite literally to eradicate their use. The likely hood of the required technology to make good on such a fix is slim to none, but within that slim chance there has been a major recent development that leaves us that bit closer to ‘saving the world’. Donald Sadoway and a team of students are on their way to accomplishing the impossible by attempting to resolve one of the major troubles of the mass use of renewable energy – storage. Together they have developed a battery that has the capacity of 2MWh (two million/mega watt hours) which is the amount required to power 200 households daily. This is available for grid level storage, is silent, cost effective and meets market price.
Renewable Energy 
As renewable energy is generated from an unpredictable natural resource, i.e. solar and wind – the sun does not always shine, nor is it always windy - we needed to develop a safeguard for when the supply of energy did not meet the demand, thus the necessity for a battery fuelled by the resource in question arose. However, both the initial and mass production of the battery proved problematic. The cost that such an invention would incur was supposedly far greater than would be economic and possibly allow a price match to be made with the current grid supply. Sadoway dismissed these initial concerns and took inspiration from the production of aluminium. Before the advent of the aluminium smelter the metal was almost as deer as the more commonly expensive gold, silver and platinum. The invention of the smelter was based on the principle of Dr. Volta’s battery whereby the initial model was no more than alternate coins of zinc and copper divided by cardboard soaked in brine. The difference existed in the components of the smelter being molten and therefore operating at much higher temperatures. Sadoway used this inspiration to begin his journey of constructing a storage unit based on the same principles, he also adopted another of the smelter’s inventers’ traits; their youth. The aluminium smelter was made by none other than twenty two year olds; Sadoway cut his expenditure by employing students within the same age category and trained them to think as he did before setting about designing the battery.

The first problem they resolved as a team was the expense of the necessary metals. They needed to find a metal that was an earth abundant element in order to cut manufacture costs. Magnesium was the answer they came up with and, now working with a small team of twenty students funded by the government, they developed a battery that was comprised of low density molten magnesium on top, a molten salt centre and a high density molten magnesium on the bottom. The temperature of the battery was also self sustaining as the current passing through generated enough heat energy to keep the components at a desired temperature and in a molten medium. With the basic design complete Sadoway’s team felt confident that the product they had come up with could quite literally be the answer to decades of unresolved questioning regarding the appearance of renewable energy resources. To speed up the manufacturing process the team set up a small company whereby they could then employ others to assist in advancing the project more hastily.
Sadoway’s team has broken the mould in terms of the traditional methodologies of inventors that normally consist of hiring highly skilled technicians at vast expense that are often so in tune with previously existing technologies that they prohibit the advent of new expertise. The out of the box thinking that students often embody and the blind ambition of professor Sadoway led to this discovery which is easily set to change the future of our planet.

Eve Pearce can be contacted via this blog. If you wish to contact her email me on

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Energy & Environment Dates 2012