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'Project Malta': Alphabet's plans to store renewable energy using salt

Engineers with Google's parent company have unveiled their latest 'moonshot'

Could salt prove to be the secret ingredient to storing renewable energy? Photo: Shutterstock

Could salt prove to be the secret ingredient to storing renewable energy? Photo: Shutterstock

Researchers working at the 'moonshot' lab of Google's parent company Alphabet want to store renewable energy using salt - and they've codenamed the plans 'Malta'.

Project 'Malta' seeks to solve the problem of how to store renewable energy to use when electricity demand spikes, rather than having to use it the moment it is generated. 

The brilliant minds at X have now announced plans to build a prototype factory to experiment and give theoretical technology they've been working on a real-world test.

X is Alphabet's secretive 'moonshot' factory, where researchers aim to invent radical technologies which could one day be applied to the real world. 

READ: Local researchers want to store energy using compressed air

The lab is behind technologies used in Google's driverless cars, Google's ill-fated Glass technology and the company's project of flying balloons in the stratosphere to provide internet access to remote areas of the globe. 

'Malta' technology

Project 'Malta' is based on a theoretical system designed by Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert Laughlin who showed that, in theory, electricity can be stored as heat in molten salt and as cold in antifreeze. 

Prof. Laughlin's work provided the theoretical framework for the technology: engineers at X then spent two years building detailed engineering designs of how to turn the theory into practice. 

The technology process as envisioned by researchers at X. Graphic: X.companyThe technology process as envisioned by researchers at X. Graphic: X.company

With designs, computer simulations and drawings in hand, researchers are now ready to subject the ideas to real-world testing. 

Crucially, researchers believe the Malta project would allow for inexpensive, flexible and long-lasting energy storage. The system can be placed close to the energy source, or closer to where energy is needed, and tanks can be recharged for up to 40 years. 

Building a factory

The lab now intends to build a megawatt-scale prototype plant large enough to test the technology on a commercial scale, and is looking for partners with the expertise necessary to build, operate and connect the prototype to the grid. 

READ: A solar catamaran built right here in Malta

If the idea works, the technology will pitch Alphabet head-to-head against Elon Musk's Tesla, whose high-profile experiments with energy storage are well-documented. Earlier this year, Mr Musk unveiled plans to build the world's largest lithium ion battery in southern Australia. 

With unproven technology, competition for energy storage technology heating up and pressure from cheap fossil fuels forcing many renewable energy ventures onto the back foot, X's latest moonshot faces plenty of hurdles if it is to ever see the light of day. 

But 'Malta' can count on some of the world's finest brains and Alphabet's $95 billion-deep pockets as backing. Will it end up being the 24/7 renewable energy revolution the world has been waiting for? 

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