‘Haven’t seen anything like this’: fire crews called to thermal energy storage pilot plant


Fire crews monitored the trial plant of University of Newcastle spinoff MGA Thermal on Friday after its heat exchange machine temperatures rocketed from their normal 700°C to 1200°C. As aluminium graphite, used in MGA’s technology, can react with water, there were initially concerns around the potential for an explosion, however this did not eventuate and the situation was brought under control within the day.

Startup MGA Thermal is currently in the process of commissioning its 5 MWh trial plant in Tomago, just north of Newcastle in New South Wales (NSW). The plant focusses on demonstrating the company’s technology which stores heat in blocks made largely from aluminium and graphite and dispatching it to generate electricity, taking a “miscibility gap alloy” approach to thermal energy storage.

An artist’s rendering of MGA’s pilot unit.

Image: MGA Thermal

Fire and Rescue NSW’s Deputy Commissioner of Field Operations, Jeremy Fewtrell said the novel nature of the technology and demonstration plant meant this particular emergency was highly usual, with it described as an Australian first. “Due to the unusual nature and large device size, the incident quickly escalated, and numerous specialists were consulted in person and remotely,” Fewtrell said. 

Scott Dodson, FRNSW’s Operational Media Coordinator, said MGA Thermal had been “excellent” at cooperating with fire crews and offering engineering help with the novel emergency.

According to 9News, the shipping container MGA’s pilot machine sits within was “glowing red.” An exclusion zone was created around the Tomago plant, including evacuations of nearby industrial buildings.

The pilot plant has been established at MGA Thermal’s facility at Tomago.

Image: MGA Thermal

“After speaking with the site representatives, who were devastated by the events of today, I encouraged them to find their feet and continue their innovative efforts to produce green and clean energy,” Jeremy Fewtrell said.

MGA’s patented thermal energy storage blocks, about the size of a large house brick, consist of small alloy particles embedded within graphite-based blocks enclosed in a fully insulated system. Once heated the alloy particles can store heat for days with minimal energy loss. Heat exchangers are used a transfer gas to absorb heat from the blocks, with the heated gas or fluid suitable for industrial heat applications or to drive a steam turbine to generate electricity.

The pilot unit, believed to be the machine which overheated, measured about 12m x 3m x 4m, and had been fitted with approximately 3,700 MGA blocks.

MGA Thermal is also working on a production line in Tomago that it expects will be capable of manufacturing more than 1 MWh of blocks daily. The pilot plant’s operations have been temporarily suspended because of the overheating emergency.

Image: MGA Thermal

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