Tucson tech: Solar energy-storage project slow to develop but ready to ramp up

2011-11-29T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T12:38:35Z Tucson tech: Solar energy-storage project slow to develop but ready to ramp upDavid Wichner Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 29, 2011 12:00 am  • 

An energy storage-system research project at the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park has been slow to get going.

But things will be ramping up soon, with the installation of a revamped compressed-air storage system and new battery systems in the next couple of months.

Tucson-based photovoltaics maker Solon Corp. is teaming up with Tucson Electric Power Co. and the University of Arizona's Arizona Research Institute for Solar Energy (AzRISE) to build an energy storage research site at the UA Science and Technology Park.

The Energy Storage Management Research and Testing site will be hooked up to a 1.6-megawatt solar plant, built by Solon for owner TEP at the UA Tech Park's Solar Zone, near South Kolb Road and Interstate 10.

The first phase of the project was to begin in August, when AzRISE planned to install a compressed-air energy storage (CAES) system designed and constructed by UA faculty and students.

Later phases will add lithium-ion battery storage systems, followed by additional technologies.

But installation of AzRISE's compressed-air system has been on hold because an initial design for an air-operated turbine supplied by a Canadian company didn't pass muster, said AzRISE Director Joseph Simmons.

The maker of the turbine, W2 Energy, based in Ontario, is revamping the turbine after testing showed it needed to use less air and operate at higher pressures, Simmons said.

Meanwhile, UA students are completing construction of their own air engine, which will be tested alongside the W2 turbine.

The student's engine, built from a re-engineered Volkswagen motor, is an "impulse" engine - though not the kind the Starship Enterprise used when warp engines weren't available.

"It uses a very small amount of air at supersonic speeds, so you get a huge push on the pistons," Simmons explained.

The students already have built and tested a heat exchanger for the compressed-air system. The AzRISE team is trying to capture waste heat from the compression phase and use it to reheat the air as it expands.

In existing compressed-air storage systems, natural gas is burned to reheat the expanding air, adding costs.

"It's a fantastic exercise for the students, and at the same time, this may be the thing that works, and if it does, we will be the only people in the world that have tried it," Simmons said.

AzRISE expects the compressed-air systems to be ready for installation sometime in January, Simmons said.

AzRISE also is in talks with battery makers to provide additional storage technologies for study.

Those technologies include "flow batteries," which store electrolytic fluids in external tanks, as well as advanced lithium-ion batteries of various chemistries, Simmons said, adding those systems will come later in 2012.

For its part, Solon recently chose Saft, a major industrial battery maker based in France, to supply lithium-ion batteries for the storage test site at the UA tech park.

Tucson-based Solon, the U.S. arm of Berlin-based Solon SE, picked Saft because the companies had worked together in Europe and Saft has significant manufacturing capabilities, said Bill Richardson, Solon's director of research and development.

"What we want out of this is not just science - we want a real product," Richardson said, noting that Saft recently opened a battery plant in Jacksonville, Fla.

Deliveries of the Saft batteries for the project are expected to begin by the end of the year.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

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