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Energy Blog Google’s Renewable Energy Storage Solution

Google’s Renewable Energy Storage Solution

Chris Hurcombe
by Chris Hurcombe September 10, 2017

Alphabet Inc., formerly known as Google, has an innovative solution for renewable energy storage. The promising new project, dubbed Malta, uses a combination of salt and antifreeze to store energy.

Malta is being developed by Alphabet’s somewhat secret research and development facility. The research lab, simply named X, was also responsible for developing Google’s driverless car nearly a decade ago. Now X, the subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., is focusing on creating a system dedicated to storing renewable energy that would otherwise go to waste.

The Malta system has a longer lifespan than lithium-ion batteries and will function as intended almost anywhere. According to X, Malta has the potential to go toe-to-toe with many of the new hydroelectric systems as well as other well-established energy storage solutions.

X, headquartered near Google’s Googleplex in Mountain View, California, has an unflattering win-lose ratio when it comes to their projects. Due to this X’s projects have earned the nickname “moonshots”. This is especially true for X’s clean-energy projects, which have not become quite as popular as the driverless cars.

According to Obi Felten, a director at X, “If the moonshot factory gives up on a big, important problem like climate change, then maybe it will never get solved”. Felten went on to say that “If we do start solving it, there are trillions and trillions of dollars in market opportunity.”

Fewer than ten researchers are manning the Malta project in Felten’s lab, The Foundry. Here, researchers are testing a simplified version of the salt and antifreeze prototype. The goal is to transform the science experiment into a large scale workable model that will fit in emerging business models.

Although Malta is not an official X project yet, it has reached an important stage in its development: The Foundry team is currently seeking business partners. Investors are needed to assist with the building, operating, and connecting a large-scale Malta prototype to the grid.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, launching Malta would put X into a market that may see approximately $40 billion in investments by 2024.

As of date, electrical grids have a hard time incorporating renewable energy into the system. When solar and wind renewable sources produce substantial energy around noon there is not an efficient way to store it. Due to this, many utilities are forced to discard the precious energy.

Earlier this year, California had no way to utilize over 300,000 megawatts of solar and wind energy. To put that into perspective, the amount of energy lost had the potential to power almost fifty-thousand households. American isn’t alone in this dilemma.

In Germany, about 4% of wind energy went unused in 2015 and China typically tosses about 17% according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. This energy loss issue is one of the main factors driving the demand for novel renewable energy storage solutions.

Felten has stated that being able to work with companies in China, where nearly all Google web services are banned, is exciting. Before this can occur, however, the Malta team has to transform the working prototype into a grid ready version.

Bloomberg News has reported that the Malta system resembles a mini power plant. Malta is equipped with four tanks, shaped like cylinders, connected by pipes to a heat pump. X has stated that this model can be appropriately scaled as needed. A few suggested sizes range between the dimensions of a large garage and those of a traditional power plant. Another estimation provided by X states that Malta may be able to provide electricity to data centers and other large facilities on demand or as storage for small renewable energy establishments.

Julian Green, a product manager of Malta, describes the system as follows. “Think of this, at a very simple level, as a fridge and a jet.”

Of the four tanks, two are filled with salt. The other two are filled with a hydrocarbon liquid akin to antifreeze. Malta takes in energy that has been turned into electricity. From there, the energy is transformed into isolated streams of hot and cold air. The hot current is directed to the salt whereas the cold air is guided into the antifreeze, akin to how a refrigerator works.

Flipping this flow of hot and cold air makes the system function like a jet engine. Both streams of air are joined, causing gusts that are powerful enough to spin a turbine. When this occurs, electricity can be produced as needed.

One of the reasons why Malta works so well is because of the salt: it can maintain its temperature exceedingly well if insulated properly. Utilizing this useful trait, Malta can store energy for many hours or possibly days.

Salt has already been established as a plausible technique for renewable energy storage. Malta has enhanced this idea by designing a system that operates at a lower temperature. Doing so makes it easy to avoid the need for specialized ceramics and expensive steels.

According to Green, “The trick is doing it at the right temperatures, with cheap materials. That is super compelling.”

X has not announced the price of the materials being used, however, Raj Apte, Malta’s head engineer, stated that salt-based storage has the potential to be cheaper than other energy storage solutions. Other companies, such as the German engineering firm Siemens, is also currently developing energy storage systems that use salt.

According to Yayoi Sekine, an analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Malta “…could potentially compete with lithium-ion,” and that “…there are a lot of challenges that an emerging technology has to face.”

One obstacle standing in X’s way is attracting investors. Although Malta looks promising, the potential return may not actually occur for several years. In addition to this, Alphabet has a notorious history of shutting experimental projects down if they stray from the core areas of high-power computing and software.

Fortunately, Robert Laughlin is a consultant on the Malta project. Laughlin, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, conducted the research that laid down the very foundation of Malta. He officially joined the Malta team a few years ago after Laughlin met with X representatives. After discussing the idea the lab decided to fund the project and create a team dedicated to seeing it developed.

According to Laughlin, X is one of the most committed backers he has come in contact with. When Laughlin first started pitching the idea it was as his own startup. After talking with technology investors, such as Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures, they passed on the idea. Laughlin stated that they were not interested in dealing with the tougher demands associated with the conservative energy industry.

Laughlin shared “What we’re talking about here is engines and oil companies — big dinosaurs with very long teeth”. He went on to say that it’s “above the pay grade of people out here.”

X has not officially stated how much it has invested into Malta thus far, however, Laughlin referred to the investment fondly. “A blessing came out of the sky…X came in and took a giant bite out of this problem.”