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Could The U.S. Become Lithium Independent?

Could The U.S. Become Lithium Independent?

Despite having some of the…

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Premium Content

Thermal Batteries Are the Hottest New Thing in Energy Storage

  • Thermal batteries are the latest innovation in energy storage, offering affordability and potential for decarbonization.
  • Thermal energy storage has the potential to contribute significantly to decarbonizing global heat and power and ensure an affordable, reliable, and efficient energy system.
  • Lack of publicity is the key bottleneck for industrial-scale thermal energy storage deployment.
Energy Storage

The energy storage sector is on the verge of explosion. As leading economies around the world race to install more and more renewable energy production capacity, the nature of our energy landscape is changing, and the grid will need significant advances and infrastructural supports to keep up. One of these key supports is energy storage, which can manage and even out the variable flow of renewable energy to and from the grid. Due to its central role in energy security in an increasingly decarbonized world, the energy security sector could double in size over the course of 2024.

The majority of energy storage is currently accomplished with the use of lithium-ion batteries, but there are a few problems with the wide-scale employment of this technology. First, lithium is a highly sought-after finite resource that is yielding an increasingly negative environmental and health impact in the places where it is mined. Moreover, it’s an essential component of electric vehicle batteries and photovoltaic solar panels, meaning that competition over lithium resources is already fierce and heating up. A 2023 report from Popular Mechanics estimates that “an electrified economy in 2030 will likely need anywhere from 250,000 to 450,000 tonnes of lithium.” For reference, “in 2021, the world produced only 105—not 105,000—tonnes.” 

But perhaps most importantly, lithium-ion batteries just aren’t great at storing energy. They can only hold onto excess renewable energy production for a matter of hours, when what the sector really needs is months or even years of storage capability. As such, there is a huge gap – and therefore a huge opportunity – in the energy storage market, and researchers around the world are rushing to fill it. 

While energy storage development is still in early stages, it’s set to be a wildly lucrative industry, and has been touted as “the technology that will cash the checks written by the renewable energy industry,” according to law firm Morgan Lewis. As the renewable energy sector grows, the firm anticipates that energy storage capacity will balloon by a factor of 15 by 2030. Accordingly, lots of research and development dollars are currently being poured into discovering the future of long-term energy storage, and many elegant and innovative solutions have been proposed. But so far, none have achieved employment at a commercial scale.

The long-term energy storage solutions that are currently emerging represent a vast range of technologies, from futuristic green hydrogen schemes to some of the simplest and most prehistoric tools: pulleys, weight, and gravity. And now, thermal batteries are the hottest new thing in energy storage startups. Heat already provides over 50% the total industry energy demands, but has been relatively overlooked as an energy storage alternative. But its deployment could be relatively rapid and simple, as it depends not on rare earth metals but on comparatively accessible and abundant resources such as salt, air, and bricks, all of which are excellent at retaining thermal energy. 

Related: Cesium Wars: China and America Battle for the Future of Big Tech

“Thermal energy storage has the potential to greatly contribute to decarbonizing global heat and power, while helping to ensure the energy system operates affordably, reliably, and efficiently,” states a 2022 report from global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. The affordability factor is huge. McKinsey estimates that the operational cost of a heat pump with thermal storage is only $15-$25 per megawatt hour. By comparison, energy storage through producing steam heat from hydrogen costs $65-$100 per megawatt hour and gas with carbon capture and storage costs $45-$55. 

The biggest challenge facing thermal energy storage is lack of publicity in a crowded and noisy market. The McKinsey report identifies raising awareness amongst industry leaders as the key bottleneck for industrial-scale thermal energy storage deployment. Many startups are already successfully storing energy in molten salt, compressed air, and bricks, technologies which could be adopted practically anywhere at any time. Crucially, thermal energy storage “could be among the most cost-effective routes to decarbonization of heating if applied at scale, while also providing stability and resilience for heat and power sectors as they transition to net-zero.”

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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Leave a comment
  • john tucker on April 03 2024 said:
    In 1900, the city of New York was served with taxicabs that were exclusively electric.

    The problem today is the same one that was the problem then, namely, the laws of the universe, including the second law of thermodynamics. The batteries were heavy and took a long time to recharge and they wore out after awhile.

    Anytime you convert heat energy into mechanical energy into electrical energy, there is a significant loss with each transfer. Put that electricity into a battery, or thermal storage, or into hydrogen, or into mechanical movement such as a massive fly wheel, and there is loss. While it stays in that condition, there is more loss. Turn it back into electricity later on when you need it, and there is more loss.

    By 1903, ALL of the electric taxis had been replaced with taxis using gasoline motors, because they were so much more economical and convenient. And the laws of the universe have not changed at all since then......

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