Is Volcanic Ash an Answer to Efficient Solar Energy Storage?

Volcanic Ash Could Unlock the Answer to more Efficient and Sustainable Solar Energy Storage. Credit: John Arellano
Volcanic ash, typically seen as a disruptive force, is now hailed by University of Barcelona researchers as a valuable energy storage medium

Volcanic ash could store unused green power according to researchers from a leading European research university. 

This could be a gamechanger for the energy storage space as, though it's rarely positive news when volcanic ash from eruptions blankets land for miles around and plumes rise into the atmosphere, it can enhance energy storage, according to University of Barcelona researchers.

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Its bright minds say volcanic ash has a rare combination of useful properties which can revolutionise efficient solar energy storage.

Why is energy storage so important?

A crucial element to the renewables rollout, energy storage allows energy produced during optimal conditions — often when demand for power is low — to be deployed when needed.  Balancing the swings in power generation from the likes of wind and solar facilities, it allows energy produced here to be brought online in line with customer needs, ensuring efficiency and lack of waste.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts installed storage capacity will reach more than 270GW by 2026. This growth is being accelerated thanks to the need to utilise and integrate variable renewable energy (VRE) into power systems.

In recent weeks, the Group of Seven (G7) committed to expanding global energy storage to 1,500GW, six times the capacity currently available. This, it says, will help the world meet its goal of tripling renewables capacity by 2030.

However at the G7 Energy Ministerial — led by Gilberto Pichetto Fratin, Italy’s Minister of the Environment and Energy Security — the IEA’s Executive Director Dr Fatih Birol called for a sixfold increase in global energy storage by 2030 to support the tripling of renewables.

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA

This comes off the back of an IEA report, which led Fatih to emphasise the importance of diversified clean energy supply chains and their contribution to working toward a more secure, greener energy future.

How can volcanic ash shape the future of solar energy storage?

In simple terms, thanks to volcanic ash’s ability to withstand high temperatures, it offers an alternative to molten salts for storing solar energy in concentrated solar power (CSP) plants. 

CSP plants use mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays on a central tower and generate energy in the form of heat. These facilities typically store excess power in huge tanks filled with molten salts, which reach its high temperatures when heat is transferred across.

As volcanic ash was found by University of Barcelona researchers to have excellent thermal conductivity and stability, the medium offers itself up as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly option for energy storage.

University of Barcelona

The researchers suggest that mixing volcanic ash with molten salts can mitigate corrosive effects and prevent solidification, providing a promising solution for sustainable thermal energy storage.

The University of Barcelona’s research, which was published in the Journal of Energy Storage, said that concrete and other solid particles are now considered a more affordable option than molten salts to help “enhance the competitiveness” of CSP plants.

This comes after multiple major CSP plants suffered leaks from their molten salt tanks, including the largest CSP plant in the world, the Noor III solar power facility in Morocco. As a result, the owners of the 510MW plant took a hit of around US$47m and have closed the facility until November 2024.

The Noor III CSP in Morocco

The University of Barcelona’s research on using volcanic ash for energy storage could revolutionise the field of solar energy storage. By providing a more stable and cost-effective alternative to traditional molten salt storage systems, volcanic ash opens up new possibilities for renewable energy storage. Not only this, the environmental benefits of repurposing volcanic ash make it an attractive option for sustainable energy storage, further driving innovation in the energy sector.

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