Silicon Valley scientist Justin Raade was screening lubricants for industrial uses three years ago when he noticed a machine collecting dust in the corner. Changing gears, he began his search for the perfect mixture of materials needed to solve a major problem in the solar energy industry.
“The more I read about solar, the more I realized the bottleneck keeping it from being competitive with fossil fuel was storage,” says the 33-year-old Raade, during a week in which he balances speaking engagements with the imminent birth of his second child.
Raade recalls how he used his doctoral experience in energy storage from nearby University of California, Berkeley, in his early research into concentrating solar power (CSP) and thermal energy storage.
Today, Raade and the small start-up he founded, Halotechnics, have received about $6 million in federal grants and are raising $2 million in venture capital for the launch of technology and mixtures that could change the face of solar energy within the next few years.
Under Raade’s leadership, Halotechnics has been able to screen thousands of materials, heating them successfully to higher temperatures for cheaper, more efficient energy storage than has been seen in the field.
“CSP storage is becoming one of the central important elements of solar power and the electric grid, in general,” says Tex Wilkins, executive director of the new CSP Alliance.
“Justin has the ability to come up with new, high-temperature Earth-abundant storage materials that will be important to the future growth of the industry,” says Wilkins, who retired last year as head of CSP R&D funding for the U.S. Department of Energy. The DOE provided Raade with his first research grant.
Solar (without storage ability) and wind energy are variable, Wilkins says. To manage the electrical grid, electricity has to be available on demand whether the wind blows or the sun shines. And CSP with storage is able to offer that assurance, he says, taking a break from a solar conference in San Diego at which Raade was a moderator and speaker.
“The thermal storage sector is really starting to innovate and support higher temperature steam operations, which translates to even greater cost advantages over other electrical storage technologies,” adds Keely Wachs, senior director of corporate communications for BrightSource Energy, a solar thermal power plant builder. “Halotechnics’ work in higher temperature storage solutions is critical to this effort.”
BrightSource is among those considering Halotechnics' materials to improve their energy storage capacity.
Raade understands the importance of the work. After all, utility companies are paying double and triple for electricity during evening hours, when solar power traditionally has the disadvantage. “If we can store the sun’s energy cheaply enough, we can make solar power day and night a reality,” Raade says. “I think that’s an exciting vision to bring forth. That’s where we need to be to be competitive with fossil fuel.”
Until then, Halotechnics and its nine employees have their work cut out for them. The company’s goal is to make CSP cheaper than coal by 2020 in line with the DOE SunShot Initiative, says Grady Hannah, Halotechnics business development director.
Halotechnics hopes to be at pilot scale with is first molten salt product, Saltstream 565, by the end of the year and start selling it within a year, Raade says. He says the product is 20 percent cheaper than other molten salt products on the market that are able to obtain the same operating temperatures of 565 degrees Celsius. A salt mixture that can operate at a higher temperature of 700 degrees should be at pilot scale by next year and available commercially by 2014. And its molten glass mixture should be commercial by 2016.
Each successive product is projected to offer increased cost efficiencies. For example, thermal energy costs are 90 percent cheaper with glass than other thermal storage methods used today, Raade says.
From his vantage point, Raade believes he’s living the high life. It’s been a long ride from his small-town Midwestern youth to the innovation center of Northern California. With an early interest in machines such as radio control cars, motorcycles and dirt bikes, Raade believes his passion for creating valuable materials was inspired by his grandfather’s philosophy: “make do with what you’ve got.”
He also may have been inspired to pursue a career involving natural resource management from his family’s background in that area. His grandfather was a milk truck driver and farmer; another grandfather was a copper miner, and his father works with the forestry service, he says.
However he arrived at his destination, he certainly believes he’s in the right place. “You can’t beat California,” he says. “Silicon Valley is a great hub to live in. All cool things happen in California.”
Raade’s scientific breakthroughs in the solar world certainly qualify for that designation too.
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