University of Newcastle: The surprising new role power plants will have in our green energy future

Dominic McAtamney grew up in Maitland, in the heart of the Hunter Valley’s historic coalfields, and from a young age it seemed destined that was where the future lay.

“When I was in school, 100% I was like, ‘I’m going to go to uni, get an engineering degree and go work in the mines,’” Dom says.

“And all my friends were like, ‘yeah go work in the mines, good choice!’”

It’s a well-trodden path too, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics noting that the sale of the region’s coal dates back to 1799, while “the first export of Australian coal took place in 1801 when 150 tonnes of Newcastle coal was despatched to India”.

Dominic McAtamney

Following more than 200 years of careers forged from energy creation in the region, Dom’s plan appeared to be on track too, having started at the University of Newcastle, initially studying electrical engineering before making the switch to mechanical engineering, then landing an internship and, eventually, a casual job at one of the Hunter Valley’s coal-fired power stations.

As a final-year student who already had strong prospects of a career in the energy sector, everything was coming up Dom.

There was just one problem:

“I had a chat with my final-year project supervisor and mentor, who would later go on to become a good friend, ‘I don’t like my job. I want to do something meaningful to me,’” Dom says.

Dom’s supervisor connected them with a local start-up working in the renewable energy space…

“I don’t like my job. I want to do something meaningful.”

“Something meaningful”
MGA Thermal is one of those classic, overnight success stories – in that it actually is the result of more than a decade of hard work.

The company has its roots in research that Professor Erich Kisi and his team started conducting at the University in 2010, which led to the invention of a new material called miscibility gap alloys (MGA) that can store thermal energy at a fraction of the cost of a lithium-ion battery.

“We’ve sourced abundant and readily available starting ingredients for our block so that it can be produced at a very low cost to accommodate for the scale of energy storage that’s required – they are 10 per cent of the cost of a lithium battery of the same size, yet store the same amount of energy thermally,” Professor Kisi explained last year.

“They are 10 per cent of the cost of a lithium battery of the same size, yet store the same amount of energy thermally.”

A mix of easily sourced and affordable materials, such as zinc and carbon, MGAs are housed in stackable bricks that allow their energy storage capacity to be safe, cheap, scalable and reusable, with a single brick having the ability to be reheated thousands of times.

“The MGA blocks are made of two components. One component melts when heated to store huge amounts of energy, and the other acts as a matrix, keeping the block in solid form and embedding the melting particles,” Professor Kisi said.

As for how they are heated, it can be done by using renewable energy such as solar or wind, or even industrial heat.

This means that tired, old complaint about renewables – that they don’t work if the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing – can be effectively dismissed, as the clean power they generate can be stored in MGA Thermal’s bricks.

The energy jobs of the future
If you think ‘lithium-ion batteries at a fraction of the cost’ sounds like a pretty awesome elevator pitch, you’d be in agreement with a number of savvy investors, with MGA Thermal recently announcing they had raised $8 million in funding, which will significantly expand the company’s manufacturing capacity.

Presently, the company can produce 100 of their bricks per day but with the added investment, they forecast a serious uptick, to the tune of:

Late 2022: 2000 bricks per day
Late 2023: 20,000 bricks per day
Late 2025: 100,000 bricks per day
An increase of 1000 times as many bricks per day is obviously going to require extra hands on-deck, with MGA Thermal set to see the workforce at their Mayfield base of operations – the former site of the BHP steelworks – swell by a considerable factor.

This could be just the start of jobs at MGA Thermal as well, with Professor Kisi seeing “an addressable market in the trillions of dollars”.

However, it’s down the line where even more jobs will be created – or, in the case of the Hunter Valley, potentially repurposed.

New life for old systems?
Energy stored as heat can be used in any number of ways but one of the most intriguing is by turning water into steam that can turn turbines and run generators.

Much like the way we get power from a coal-fired power station.

It’s here where the possibility is presented for Dom’s career to come full circle.

Because one of MGA Thermal’s key projects, in collaboration with Swiss company E2S Power AG, is to retrofit fossil-fuel power stations with MGA Thermal bricks to convert these existing assets into clean, renewable sources of energy.

“It turns out that after shutting down, a lot of the machinery of a coal fired power plant is still useful. The retrofit of power plants takes coal completely out of the power production process, replacing the coal furnace with a large MGA energy storage system, which is charged up using excess renewable energy from the grid,” Arden Jarrett, Business Development Officer at MGA Thermal (and fellow recent graduate of the Uni), explained.

“At times of high demand, this storage system generates steam, which can be converted to low-cost energy using the existing power plant’s turbines, condensers, generators and grid connection.

“This repurpose of existing assets allows energy storage to be implemented at a fraction the cost of other solutions.”

“The retrofit of power plants takes coal completely out of the power production process…”

Of course, the transition to a green economy isn’t going to happen overnight, so coal has a part to play in maintaining the grid for some time to come. But by taking advantage of the possibilities presented by companies such as MGA Thermal, the transition can both ensure the Hunter is reducing emissions while building jobs for the future.

Because, rather than just being for retired plants, the bricks can also be installed in existing coal-fired power stations, supporting the gradual transition to renewable energy sources.

As a result, Dom could well return to their roots in the Hunter Valley’s coal-fired power stations. Except this time, they could have a hands-on role in giving the ageing sites a new lease on life – one that ensures power-generation jobs stay in the region, yet does so using clean, renewable sources.

“It sounds cheesy but I always wanted to do something to make the world better,” Dom says.

“I see MGA as an avenue to do that on a global scale.”

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