Boffins build blazing battery bonfire

'Sun in a box' system promises power storage from molten silicon


Energy boffins have proposed an alternative to lithium-ion batteries: Instead of costly electrochemical cells, which have been known to burst into flames, they have devised a "sun in a box" to store energy for power utilities.

Imagine a storage tank 10 meters in diameter filled with molten silicon, alongside a few other components to turn the heat into electricity. That could be tomorrow's grid-scale battery. While converting heat to electricity is inefficient, that loss can be overcome by the potential cost savings – storing heat is 50x to 100x cheaper than storing electricity, the researchers say.

The energy grid isn't set up to store energy, explained Henry, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, in an interview with The Register. "The whole grid is operated by predicting demand and dialing in supply," he said.

Having a cost-effective way for utilities to store energy would make the transition to renewable energy sources easier – solar power, for example, can't meet energy demand at night unless it's been stored during the day.

The researchers from Georgia Tech, MIT, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory – Caleb Amy, Hamid Reza Seyf, Myles Steiner, Daniel Friedman and Asegun Henry – describe their silicon-based battery in a paper, "Thermal energy grid storage using multi-junction photovoltaics," published the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

As the paper puts it, the "storage problem...has emerged as one of the most important technological barriers to decarbonization of the grid and mitigating climate change."

According to Henry, the "sun in the box" – a term for the battery system coined by colleague Shannon Yee at Georgia Tech instead of TEGS-MPV, from the paper's title – represents an attempt to reduce the cost of energy storage at scale. A molten silicon battery can store energy for almost an order of magnitude less than current lithium-ion systems.

Lithium-ion costs run about $300 to $400 per kWh-e, he said, while a molten silicon system looks like it can operate at $30 to $40 per kWh-e. Even with costs for lithium-ion storage projected to drop to around $150 per kWh-e, the paper contends costs will need to be about $50 per kWh-e or less to make energy storage work with renewable sources.

The silicon used isn't semiconductor grade and the cost might be brought down further by adding scrap steel to the mix, said Henry.

Alas, he seemed skeptical that utility-maintained tubs of scorching silicon could serve as a place to toss old electronics in lieu of the current messy recycling process.

Asked about the safety of managing giant vats of fiery silicon, Henry said the infrastructure required would be similar to that used for molten salt. "They dig a big hole and fill it with concrete so if the salt leaks it would be contained," he explains. "These are significant construction projects. We don't expect it to leak because it's essentially a self-healing protective layer of silicon carbide."

With government funding in hand, Henry said he and his colleagues are in the process of negotiating milestones and he anticipates having something to show in about three years.

He allowed that the technology could be disruptive to utilities and their business models, but he suggested it's more likely it will open up new opportunities. ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022