Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.
The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.
Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.
The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.
Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.
“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.
Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.
Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.
“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”
For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.
The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.
The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.
The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.
One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.
Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a solar panel that’s only there when the sun shines on it? That’s the idea behind this research project, which uses shape-shifting materials to make a solar panel grow from a compressed state to an expanded one with nothing more than a change in temperature.
The flower-like prototype device is made of what’s called a “shape-memory polymer,” a material that can be shaped when cool to one form, then when heated will attempt to return to its original, natural configuration. In this case the cool form is a compressed disc, and the warm one is a much wider one.
The transition (demonstrated here in warm water for simplicity) takes less than a minute. It’s guided by a network of hinged joints, the structure of which was inspired by the children’s toy known as a Hoberman sphere, which changes from a small, spiky ball to a larger spherical one when thrown.
The cooled-down material would stay rigid during, say, deployment on a satellite. Then when the satellite encounters the sun, the mechanism would bloom into the full-sized array, no power necessary. That would potentially save space on a satellite that can’t quite fit a battery or spare solar array to kick-start a larger one.
For now the transformation is one-way; the larger disc must be manually folded back into the smaller configuration — but one can imagine how once powered up, a separate mechanism could accomplish that, stowing itself away until the next chance to absorb some sunlight appears.
Don’t expect to see this on any spacecraft next year, but it’s definitely a cool (and warm) idea that could prove more than a little useful for small satellites and the like in the future. And who knows? Maybe you’ll have a garden of these little blooming arrays on your roof before that.
At Uber’s Elevate summit in Washington, DC earlier this month, researchers, industry leaders and engineers gathered to celebrate the approaching advent of on-demand air service. For Dr. Anita Sengupta, co-founder and Chief Product Office at Detroit’s Airspace Experience Technologies (abbreviated ASX), it was an event full of validation of her company’s specific approach to making electric vertical take-off and landing craft a working, commercially viable reality.
ASX’s eVTOL design is a tilt-wing design, which is distinct from the tilt-rotor design you might see on some of the splashier concept vehicles in the category. As you might’ve inferred from the name of each type of aircraft, with tilt-wing designs the entire wing of the aircraft can change orientation, while on tilt-rotor, just the rotor itself adjust independent of the wing structure.
The benefits of ASX’s tilt-wing choice, according to Sengupta, is speed to market and compatibility with existing regulatory and pilot licensing frameworks – and that’s why ASX could be providing cargo transport service relatively quickly for paying customers, with passenger travel to follow once regulators and the public get comfortable with the idea.
ASX founding team Jon Rimanelli and Dr. Anita Sengupta. Credit: ASX
“Depending upon the aircraft configuration you selected, like us, for example, we’re basically a fixed wing aircraft,” Sengupta explained. “So we would not be classified as a rotorcraft, we’d be classified as a fixed wing aircraft with multi-engine, just with obviously special certification features for the VTOL capability. And of course, special check out for the pilots, but the pilots also would be fixed wing aircraft, pilots, they wouldn’t be helicopter pilots.”
ASX’s vehicle design means that it can either take off vertically when space is tight, or do a more traditional short horizontal take off like the airplanes we use every day. That not only makes it easier to use for pilots with more conventional training and experience, but it also means it can slot into existing infrastructure relatively easily and make use of underused regional airports that already dot the U.S.
“Most people who don’t fly for fun don’t realize that there are general aviation airports all over the place, that are underutilized, because only people like me, who fly for fun [Sengupta is also a pilot], use them frequently,” she said. ” Like where we’re located at Detroit City Airport, on a given day, there could sometimes only be like three planes that go in and out of it. So this is infrastructure, which is already funded, paid for and operated by governments, but isn’t utilized. And you can use them in this new UAM [Urban Air Mobility] space, whether it’s for people or for cargo, it’s actually a really good thing, because the challenge of any new transportation system is the cost of infrastructure.”
ASX has also moved quickly to get aircraft up in the sky, which is better help in terms of its own path to commercialization. It’s built six scaled down demonstration and testing aircraft, including five one-fifth scale and one that’s one-third the size of the eventual production version. These testing aircraft can demonstrate all their modes of flight within easy view of the Detroit City Airport airspace control and monitoring.
“We believe, and when you’re really cash strapped your small company, getting a lot of work at the subscale just allows you to do a lot more iterating, prototyping, and learning, basically how to control the vehicle,” Sengupta told me. “From a software perspective, it’s only when you get to that point, when you’re comfortable with a configuration, that it’s really worth your while to go off and build the full scale one. So with this next round [of funding, ASX’s second after raising just over $1 million last year]we’re going to go off and build this out at scale.”
Ultimately, Sengupta and ASX want to help usher in an era of air travel that creates efficiencies by changing the economics of regional and electric flight, and its attracting interest from investors and industry partners alike, including global transportation service provider TPS Logistics, with which it just signed a new MOU to work together on sussing out the opportunities of the eVTOL logistics market.
“Right now you you see a lot of congestion in airports, within beings, you’re going to have congestion coming in, you’re going to have to build a different professional parking lots and runways and all kinds of huge expense, if you can use these general aviation airports as regional centers to do that travel, you can take it away from the commercial, so they actually solve a lot of other problems,” Sengupta said. “For routes of let’s say 300 miles, you probably would need to do a hybrid power solution first, just because the energy density better isn’t there yet. But that’s the whole nicer than having it be fully fueled. And then hopefully […] hydrogen fuel cells is obviously something where you can get the energy needed in each of those regional flights. So by kick-starting this electric aviation use case for the shorter range, urban flights, you kind of kickstart the industry to push it over to fully electric vehicles for regional travel.”