In Mechanical Engineering

Optimising future renewable energy technology

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Grant Reynolds

Using specialist skills and tools, SOTO engineers have helped progress an Australian-first clean energy project.

When people think of energy, they typically think of electricity due it its ubiquitous use in everyday life. Yet, thermal energy, or heat energy, is one of the most significant components of the energy landscape. It is used in a wide range of industrial applications, where the great majority of manufacturing processes require heat.

Currently almost all process heat greater than 800°C in Australia is provided by fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal, and diesel.

Australian clean energy company 1414 Degrees is developing silicon-based thermal energy storage systems to provide dispatchable power and decarbonised heat in industrial and grid applications. The technology offers long-duration storage for renewable energy with flexible energy outputs of clean electricity and heat.

As it moves closer to full-scale operations, SOTO engineers were enlisted to conduct advanced analysis of the heat exchanger designs to be used in the thermal energy units.

Advanced analysis allows engineers to refine and optimise designs using sophisticated modelling. Marius Birsanu, SOTO Senior Advanced Analysis Engineer, has worked with the 1414 Degrees team since 2017 on models that compared the performance of different proposed designs. The results were optimised designs, and the client has the confidence to proceed with what is an Australian-first for the energy sector. 

SOTO Senior Advanced Analysis Engineer Marius Birsanu.

“Soto specialises in advanced analysis, and we have the experience and knowledge in using these tools to provide insights that are valuable to the client,” Mr Birsanu said.

“We can come in where a team of engineers on a project need more detail and answers to complex problems, and working with the client, we can help them reduce the time and cost associated with building and testing that would otherwise be necessary for the development of an optimised design.

1414 Degrees’ Thermal Energy Storage technology harnesses the exceptionally high latent heat of molten silicon to store energy in the form of high temperature heat. It consists of silicon-based energy storage media with heating system and energy recovery contained within an insulated furnace. The storage is intended to store intermittent renewable electricity as heat during hours of excess renewable generation, and then dispatch it as ultra-high temperature air for either power generation via turbine and/or directly as process heat.

The energy for heating the silicon can come from various sources, particularly renewables, which offers a solution for additional storage from intermittent sources, aiding reliability and stability of the grid.

A thermal Energy Storage System for industrial applications. Photo courtesy 1414 Degrees.

The heat exchanger design has to cater for the chemical reactions between the atmosphere, the containment material and the silicon-based alloy and be capable of withstanding internal operating temperatures of more than 1000-degrees Celsius for long periods. To achieve a high efficiency of heat exchange, with minimal heat loss, it is critical to optimise thermal performance and the structural integrity of the exchanger itself.

“It’s not every day that we are working with materials like silicon in our analyses,” Mr Birsanu said. “A project like this is satisfying because we can use our skills and work with the client to optimise processes that are relatively new.

“This not only helps the client, it also adds to our body of knowledge around emerging energy technologies. From a professional perspective, it allows us to build our knowledge of advanced analysis, pushing our potential and that of the tools we use.”

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