Guest Blog: Professor Yulong Ding, Director of the Birmingham Energy Storage Centre at the University of Birmingham

Urban Reserve site

An innovative project by AMP and The University of Birmingham aims to research how to store heat in a quarter of the space of conventional systems.

The organisations are working together to develop a real-life application of a study conducted by the University, designing novel Phase Change Material (PCM) to turn solid heat into a liquid, to maximise thermal energy storage. The project has received funding from Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) programme.

AMP interviewed Professor Ding to find out more about how the project will work.

How did the idea for a thermal heat storage project come about?

AMP wanted to see if they could store energy, which could be converted into heat, from their Urban Reserve flexible electricity peaking plants. The thermal efficiency for electricity generation through these peaking plants (typically only operating 2-5 hours a day) is up to 43%, leaving 57% primary energy converted into heat. Thermal energy storage enables us to utilise the generated heat to meet local end-users’ continuous heat demand, resulting in a dramatic increase in the efficiency and financial viability. It is a perfect case to demonstrate the potential for heat storage.

What are the overall aims of the project?

The main aim is to scale up a study conducted by the University, designing novel Phase Change Material (PCM), to turn solid heat into a liquid, to maximise thermal energy storage. We will then test and validate the system thoroughly. The Knowledge Transfer Partnership with AMP provides an opportunity, and also a challenge, to embed the theory into a live application. As an academic it is exciting to see your research translate into real-world benefits.

From AMP’s perspective, the storage system will store waste heat recovered from an Urban Reserve peaking plant, which can be used to supply low carbon heat to nearby buildings at lower cost and will be a quarter of the size of conventional heat storage systems. This will dramatically increase the efficiency of the AMP’s Urban Reserve power plants from 40% to about 90%.

How will you carry out the research phase for the project?

The academic team at the University of Birmingham has considerable experience in Phase Change Materials (PCMs). When PCMs change phase, they can absorb considerably more heat than the same volume of water, substantially reducing the volume of storage that is required. Initial estimates suggest that the volume required could be reduced by up to 75%.

A KTP Associate has been recruited to deliver the project on behalf of AMP and the University. He acts as an interface between the two parties, between the research generated and the application of the knowledge within the business.

What are the benefits of a Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP)?

KTPs have a proven track record of helping businesses, of all sizes, innovate and grow. Its central tenant is that it transfers and embeds knowledge from a University partner into a business in order that research and know-how generated from academics are applied in a commercial setting. The key deliverer of that knowledge is the Associate, who sit in the business and act as the ‘go between’ the University and the business, driving the project. There are currently over 800 projects in progress across the UK, with around 100 University partners.

Will this project potentially create a new market for heat storage?

Yes absolutely! The project team estimate there is currently 1.5 GW of electricity produced from gas peaking plants each year, and BEIS say this is expected to grow to around 6 GWe by 2025. If it were possible to store and use the heat being produced from just a small percentage of this capacity by 2025, we could save more than 0.9 GW of heat which is currently wasted. If each installed peaking plant operates for 4 hours per day, 2190 GWh of heat is wasted per year. The value of that heat, if supplied by a conventional gas boiler, would be worth around £55M.

The peaking market is set to grow substantially in the future and we expect this capacity to increase to around 5GW by 2021, potentially offering the opportunity to store and utilise in the region of £183M worth of heat each year.

Why is energy storage so important as we transition to a net zero future?

Decentralised gas peaking plants are increasingly being used in the UK to help balance and manage peaks in local and national power demand at certain times of the day. They assist greater deployment of renewable technologies such as wind turbines and solar PV by providing a rapid, relatively low cost and low environmental impact source of power to boost supply in periods of high demand. Unlike conventional larger power stations, their small footprint, portability and low impact allows them to be deployed in areas where the heat generated can be readily used by surrounding buildings, rather than wasted into the atmosphere.