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Future Energy: Will Air Help You Power Your Future Factory?

Posted By Paul Tate, October 08, 2012 at 9:49 AM, in Category: Factories of the Future

A special summit of energy scientists and engineers was held in the UK last week by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers to explore the latest developments in the use of normal air as a low-cost energy storage medium.

Sound like a lot of hot air? Quite the opposite. In fact it’s all about cold air.

The innovative new technique – called Cryo-Power - is claimed to be significantly cheaper than current battery alternatives and releases low-carbon energy that can be used to drive everything from large-scale turbines on a national electricity grid to help power factories and homes, to the engine of your car.

The idea works by cooling normal air to -190C (-310F). At this temperature air becomes liquid nitrogen and can be stored in insulated tanks. When the liquid air is later warmed, it rapidly expands back into a gas creating high pressures to drive turbines and engines.

The innovative system may have extensive future energy storage applications across both traditional and new power generation networks – including solar and wind power. Supporters also suggest the technique could be used to help power factories in the future, holding spare energy cheaply on site during quiet times, to be released when production and power demands increase.

A pilot plant set up by Highview Power Storage next to a national power station in Slough, England is already proving the technology can have large-scale applications. The test facility uses spare capacity and waste heat from the power station to refrigerate the air into a liquid that is stored in a 60 tonne tank. At times of peak demand, it then releases enough energy back to the national grid to power 6,000 homes for an hour.

Italian engineering firm Ricardo is also testing a similar system for use in individual cars, based on the work of the technique’s inventor, UK engineer Peter Dearman. This system uses liquid air held in a cylinder instead of in-car batteries to store energy and power the vehicle. Unlike the long recharging times of rare materials-based batteries in electric vehicles, the Cryo-power air system can be easily recharged simply by pouring in more liquid,

It’s early days in the development process of course, and scientists gathered in London last week noted that efficiency levels still need to be significantly improved.

But while the world’s depleting oil and rare materials reserves continue to worry governments and global industries, at least air is one thing the planet is unlikely to run out of soon.

* Manufacturing Leadership Council members can join us for this month’s Council Call debate on Factories of the Future: Is Revolutionary Change Ahead? on October 16th at 11am EST. Register here

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive


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