A team of MIT scientists led by researcher Charles Forsberg of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, recently published findings that suggest firebricks—clay bricks that can withstand heat exceeding 2,912 degrees F—could be used to store energy from clean sources such as solar and wind power, thus leveling electricity prices for energy from alternative sources.
Currently, renewable energy sources often generate power during periods of low demand—such as when wind is blowing at night—that can only be stored using costly batteries or pumped hydroelectric systems. Forsberg, however, proposes the use of cheap, insulation-enclosed firebricks in a system called Firebrick Resistance-heated Energy Storage (FIRES) to store excess energy until the power is needed. Eventually, the team hopes to update existing technology that would allow for the conversion of this stored heat to be converted back to electricity. "For example, bricks to be placed in the center of the assemblage could have high thermal conductivity, so that they can easily take in heat from the resistance heaters," according an MIT News article. "These bricks could easily give up that heat to cold air being blown through the mass to carry away the heat for industrial use."
If successful, this system could significantly alter the way electricity is bought and sold, as well as our reliance on fossil fuels.
"By diverting much of that excess output into thermal storage by heating a large mass of firebrick, then selling that heat directly or using it to drive turbines and produce power later when it’s needed, FIRES could essentially set a lower limit on the market price for electricity, which would likely be about the price of natural gas," according to MIT News.
Though the team still needs to either create resistance heaters that can manage the high heat of the clay—current affordable options can only accommodate heat up to 1,562 degrees F—or make the firebricks themselves electrically conductive, Forsberg expects to complete a full-scale prototype by 2020.