By James Noble
December 4, 2014
The next breakthrough in energy storage may have more to do with a centuries-old aluminum smelting process than any new advanced material or chemical discovery.
Trimet Aluminum SE, Germany’s largest producer of the metal, is experimenting with using vast pools of molten aluminum as virtual batteries. The company is turning aluminum oxide into aluminum by way of electrolysis in a chemical process that uses an electric current to separate the aluminum from oxygen. The negative and positive electrodes, in combination with the liquid metal that settles at the bottom of the tank and the oxygen above, form an enormous battery.
By controlling the rate of electrolysis, Trimet has been able to experiment with both electricity consumption and storage. By slowing down the electrolysis process, the plant is able to adjust its energy consumption up and down by roughly 25 percent. This allows the plant to store power from the grid when energy is cheap and abundant and resell power when demand is high and supply is scarce.
This approach to energy storage is precisely the kind of innovation that has helped Germany become one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy generation. Through a variety of regulations and policies – most prominently a feed-in-tariff for renewable energy sources – Germany has brought online vast sums of solar and wind power.
But the sun doesn’t always shine, nor does the wind steadily blow, leaving Germany with inconsistent sources of energy. Pioneering approaches like that of Trimet Aluminum, demonstrate the potential of connecting new, clean technologies with existing industries. This kind of integration of traditional industry with renewable energy sources is a source of inspiration for other countries.
Canada, for example, is the third largest producer of aluminum in the world. With smelters in Quebec and British Columbia, there’s a possibility to use the same approach to electrolysis to store energy and help the grid cope with new energy sources – like solar and wind – that create peaks and troughs in supply.
Whether the specific technique being employed in Germany would work in Canada is an open question. But whether it works or not, what should inspire Canadian industry and investors is the notion that new technology can work with existing facilities to everyone’s benefit. All that is required is some creative thinking.