Local researchers say their new type of thermal storage material could see coal-fired power stations run entirely fossil-fuel free.

Experts at the University of Newcastle have come up with what they call ‘Miscibility Gaps Alloy’  (MGA) - extraordinary blocks capable of receiving energy generated by renewables, storing it cheaply and safely as thermal energy, then using it to run steam turbines at power stations instead of burning coal.

After years perfecting the innovation to effectively and affordably store thermal energy, they have a solution – 20cm x 30cm x 16cm blocks – that can be retrofitted to retired power plants or introduced to existing power plants to help them transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

Stackable MGA blocks can be added or removed to scale the system up or down to meet market demand.

University of Newcastle Materials Scientist and lead researcher, Professor Erich Kisi, says the innovation enables renewable energy to be used as reliable baseload power – providing a sought-after solution to transition from fossil fuels to renewable technology whilst maintaining existing infrastructure and associated workforces.

“We’re aiming to bridge the gap between cheap and abundant renewable energy, which is generated in peaks, and the ability to store and dispatch energy at any time of day or night, to meet consumer needs,” Prof Kisi says.

“Unlike coal-fired power, which is regulated and controlled, renewable energy is a challenge because it is less predictable and inconsistent. The grid, which includes the poles and wires you see on streets connecting to houses and buildings, was not designed to receive large spikes associated with renewable energy.

“Redesigning the whole grid is simply too expensive so we’ve created MGA as an energy storage solution to marry with existing infrastructure.  We’ve made renewable energy compatible at grid-scale so that when the Sun doesn’t shine or wind drops the grid still delivers power on-demand.”

Made from materials with high thermal conductivity, MGA blocks work by storing heat energy.

The source of that energy could be concentrated heat directly from the Sun, surplus electricity on the grid, renewable energy, or from industrial heat or waste heat.

The MGA blocks are made of two components. One component melts when heated to store huge amounts of energy, and the other acts as a matrix, keeping the block in solid form and embedding the melting particles.

This process of heating, storing energy, cooling and recovering energy can be repeated thousands of times in an MGA block.

They can be designed with internal tubing or interact with other heat exchangers so that when water is pumped in, superheated steam is formed.  Much like a traditional coal-fired power station, the steam can then be used to run turbines and generators.

With close to $1 million in combined funding from CP Ventures and an Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Accelerating Commercialisation Grant, the MGA Thermal team are establishing a NSW-based manufacturing plant to scale production of their modular blocks to commercial levels.

“There’s potential for a whole new local industry, manufacturing high value thermal storage material for renewable energy projects,” said Professor Kisi.

“Our location in the Hunter is ideal. The region has a background as a strong centre for industry and there’s great access to raw materials.

“We’ve sourced abundant and readily available starting ingredients for our block so that it can be produced at a very low cost to accommodate for the scale of energy storage that’s required - they are 10 per cent of the cost of a lithium battery of the same size, yet produce the same amount of energy.”

Professor Kisi and his team have established spin-out company MGA Thermal to continue to commercialise their MGA block technology licensed to it by the University.