The brilliant minds at MIT exploring renewable energy solutions usually have their eyes on tomorrow. But a recent breakthrough by a team of researchers at the prestigious Cambridge, Massachusetts, university indicates that the secret to securing our energy future lies in the design wisdom of the ancient past.
According to a proposal put forth by Charles Forsberg, heat-storing bricks, first pioneered by the Hittite peoples around 1600 BC in what is now Turkey, could be a viable way to store wind and solar energy. Known as firebricks, they’re designed to withstand high temperatures and to trap heat for extended periods of time.
In this case, Forsberg’s FIRES system (for Firebrick Resistance-heated Energy Storage) converts electricity into thermal energy and then traps it in firebricks. That heat can be used either to fuel industrial processes or converted back into electricity to sell to power grids at a later time.
The proposal could solve one of the renewable energy market’s most vexing challenges: what to do when conditions generate an excess of supply? In addition to meeting the relatively steady demand for heat among industrial energy buyers, FIRES would mean producers could more efficiently save their supply for a time when power grids need it (like during the occasional solar eclipse). Because Forsberg estimates that his system can store energy much more cheaply than batteries or hydroelectric methods, FIRES has the potential to entirely upend the economics of renewables as we know it.
With a real-world test targeted for 2020, we’re still a while away from feeling FIRES’s effects, but smoothing out the supply curve for renewable energy could help further adoption. Just don’t forget to thank the Hittites.
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