A self-taught garage inventor sees his liquid air storage idea make the big time

  • Effective storage systems are set to become important as renewable energy capacity expands.
  • This is because while sources of energy such as the sun and wind are renewable, they do not provide a constant stream of power.

Work has started on a liquid air energy storage site in the northwest of England, with the team behind the project stating it will be one of the largest energy storage systems in Europe.  

Highview Power's 50 megawatt facility in Greater Manchester will harness technology that uses something called "air liquefaction."

The system involves a number of steps: excess or off peak electricity powers an air liquefier. This cleans, compresses then cools ambient air, turning it into a liquid at -196 degrees Celsius (around -320 Fahrenheit). According to the company, this liquid air is "stored at low pressure and later heated and expanded to drive a turbine and generate power." 

The technology being deployed by Highview Power stems from an idea developed by Peter Dearman, the brains behind the concept of a "liquid air engine." According to the U.K. government, Dearman — who's been described by the BBC as a "self-taught backyard inventor" — worked alongside a team from the University of Leeds to develop the idea of "using air as a form of energy storage" when compressed and liquefied.

The new site, which is scheduled to open in 2023, will be operated by Highview Power in partnership with another firm called Carlton Power.

The initiative has some significant backers. In June, the U.K. government said it would support the project with £10 million ($13.26 million) of funding. Japan's Sumitomo Heavy Industries has also invested £35 million in Highview Power, with part of this money being used for the Greater Manchester scheme.

"Our facility will deliver much needed clean, reliable and cost-efficient long duration energy storage to the National Grid," Javier Cavada, the CEO and president of Highview Power, said in a statement issued at the end of last week.

Cavada added that the CRYOBattery would help the U.K. to "integrate renewable energy and stabilize the regional electrical grid to ensure future energy security during blackouts and other disruptions."

Effective, large-scale storage systems are set to become increasingly important as renewable energy capacity expands. This is because while sources of energy such as the sun and wind are renewable, they do not promise a constant stream of power.

If excess energy can be stored effectively — and on a large scale — then it will go a long way to making renewable energy technologies more attractive propositions.

The Highview Power project is one of many interesting energy storage schemes now under development, although older systems have a role to play as well.

Cruachan Power Station, for instance, is a hydroelectric pumped storage facility housed in a hollowed-out Scottish mountain.

The site was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1965, with its final two turbines coming online in 1966 and 1967. Back in August, the Drax Group announced it would benefit from a £1 million upgrade to improve its efficiency.

According to Drax, the Cruachan station uses reversible turbines to take water from Loch Awe, a 41 kilometer long freshwater loch, or lake. In order "to store excess power from the grid," the turbines pump this water to an upper reservoir on the side of the mountain.

"The stored water is then released back through the turbines to generate power quickly and reliably when demand increases," the business adds. The site can produce power in under a minute when required.

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