At seven locations around Europe, a consortium of universities, R&D centers and an Italian company is investigating materials and devices for thermal energy storage at temperatures of up to 2000º C, well beyond the maximum operating temperatures of systems in use today.
The AMADEUS project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program, aims to build a prototype of a system that stores electricity in the form of extremely dense heat, using a solid state device known as a hybrid thermionic-photovoltaic converter. The project’s success hinges on the development of novel silicon and boron alloys with melting temperatures well above 1000º C and energy densities of more than 1 kilowatt hour per liter.
Alejandro Datas, a research scientist at the Technical University of Madrid’s Institute of Solar Energy, is the project’s scientific coordinator. He responded to questions about the project by email.
Q: What is your role as scientific coordinator?
A: My role is to coordinate the project activities and make them converge at the end in a single prototype, which will demonstrate the feasibility of this new concept. I’m also involved in the development of the infrared-sensitive PV cell (or thermophotovoltaic cell) that will be used to convert radiant heat into electricity in these systems.
Q: Work on the project began about seven months ago and is scheduled to continue through 2019. What important milestones have you reached so far, and what are the next important milestones?
A: During the first six months of the project, we have characterized some Si-B alloys with different compositions to determine their most important thermophysical parameters, such as latent heat and thermal conductivity. By means of solubility and wettability experiments, we have also studied the interaction of these alloys with some nitride- and carbide- refractories that are intended to be used for the container walls. Also, we have fabricated an experimental setup that will enable the characterization of the energy converters at very high temperatures. The next expected milestones will be the fabrication of the first generation of hybrid thermionic-photovoltaic converters, as well as the determination of the optimal Si-B alloy composition based on an exhaustive analysis of their thermophysical properties and their reactivity with the container walls.
Q: Can you describe, briefly, the PCM you are developing, and what is meant by "the silicon-boron system"?
A: The Si-B system refers to an alloy containing silicon and boron elements in some specific proportions. Silicon and boron have two of the highest latent heats among all the elements in the periodic table. But they show some important drawbacks: in the case of silicon, it expands upon solidification (like water) which leads to very severe constraints for the vessel design; in the case of boron, it has a high cost. The Si-B system is expected to exploit the best of both elements. For instance, the eutectic composition of this alloy (having only 5% of boron) is expected to notably improve the properties of pure silicon PCM at a reasonable cost increment. In brief, Si-B alloys have potential to meet the main requirements for being considered an ideal PCM: low cost, high latent heat and high thermal conductivity. Surprisingly, very little attention has been paid to this system so far, and to our knowledge, AMADEUS is the very first project to investigate these materials in detail for energy storage applications.
Q: What are some of the PCM containment materials and structures under consideration?
A: One advantage of Si-B PCMs is their high thermal conductivity. Thus, they could be stored in relatively large containers without needing very advanced encapsulation arrangements. This minimizes the impact of the container in the final cost of the system. In order to achieve the minimum interaction between the container and the Si-B PCM, we are investigating several kinds of vessel liners based on nitrides (e.g. BN or Si3N4), carbides (e.g. SiC) and oxides (e.g. SiO2).
Q: How does AMADEUS differ from the molten silicon storage technology under development by 1414 Degrees in Australia?
A: Apparently, 1414 Degrees uses pure silicon PCM and “conventional” dynamic engines to transform latent heat into electricity. 1414 Degrees probably needs to reach the market soon, so that they must use reliable and mature technologies. In AMADEUS we are exploring new technologies with greater potential that still require further development. This is the case of Si-B alloys, which may enable higher energy densities and more efficient vessel designs. This is also the case of the thermionic and thermophotovoltaic converters, which will eventually enable more efficient, compact and simpler systems, not requiring working fluids or moving parts. We certainly hope that companies such as 1414 Degrees, and others that could start activities in the near future, could benefit from the results of AMADEUS project.