The Malta Independent 17 July 2024, Wednesday
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Maltese engineers are European Inventor award finalists for innovative renewable energy storage

Isaac Saliba Sunday, 16 June 2024, 08:00 Last update: about 1 month ago

Mechanical engineers, Tonio Sant and Daniel Buhagiar, are set to make an impact in the field of energy systems, with the two Maltese nationals being declared as finalists for the European Patent Office’s European Inventor award as part of the research category.

The European Inventor award is presented to inventors who have made significant contributions to innovation, society and economy. The EPO describes the award as paying tribute to inventors who transform their ideas into solutions which address some of the greatest challenges of our time. Buhagiar and Sant are finalists for this year’s research category because of their work in developing the FLASC hydro-pneumatic energy storage system, an innovation which stores excess wind energy as hydraulic power by making use of the ocean as a cooling mechanism.

Asked to explain how the FLASC system works, Sant, who in addition to being a mechanical engineer by profession is also a professor at the University of Malta and assisted Buhagiar during his Master’s by research, answered that FLASC stores energy by compressing the air using water.

“We compress the air subsea so that the air is cooled down as it is compressed,” the engineer said, adding that one of the technical challenges faced when it comes to compressed air energy storage is that air heats up once compressed, and so in a change from the typical conventional approaches, the FLASC system utilises seawater to cool down the air before allowing it to heat up. “So as soon as the air starts heating up during compression, the seawater will absorb that heat, and this helps us to be much more efficient.”

Sant added that this technology is being developed for the marine environment, to be deployed at sea and co-located with offshore windfarms. He continued that they are designing technology which is tailor-made for offshore use, and so they are trying to simplify it as much as possible due to the complicated nature of the offshore environment.

The question was posed regarding whether the two engineers believe that renewable energy can feasibly take hold of a dominant market share within the energy industry, especially with further developments such as this system. Buhagiar replied that in certain countries, renewables have already taken a dominant role in the energy systems. He referred to Denmark as an example of a country which is “often hitting 100% renewables”, as well as other regions in the North Sea.

He said that the issue is in relation to the management of that energy in the grid, as due to the nature of wind and solar, there can be times when countries have a lot of wind and sun at the same time which results in “a lot of headaches for the grid” on a technical level.

In regard to how a development such as the FLASC system could impact the industry, Buhagiar said that this technology will result in an improvement for the business case of offshore windfarms, which would result in more companies or developers building and operating wind farms, ultimately resulting in more clean energy. “If wind farms are not profitable, they don’t get built … So that’s the focus for us; to improve the business case of offshore wind so that more wind farms get built.”

Essentially, the situation is that operating wind farms may not typically be a sensible business venture for companies and developers due to the balancing of costs and the fluctuating output, but developments like this would cut down certain costs meaning that there is a better business incentive to operate wind farms which ultimately leads to a positive result through the use of more clean, renewable energy.

Delving a bit more into the engineers’ backgrounds, as well as to what led them to develop the FLASC system, Buhagiar explained that the idea for FLASC was developed while working with Sant for his final year project at the University of Malta. “First we started looking at the power transmission aspect in using hydraulics, and then we saw an interesting opportunity to develop a storage solution,” he recounted.

For his part, Sant said that he has always been passionate about wind energy. He continued that while he was pursuing his doctoral studies at the Delft University of Technology, he realised that despite technological advancements in wind energy, the wind itself remains in term, and so he developed a particular interest in storage.

“I used to say, hey, if we're going to rely a lot on wind energy and solar energy, these two renewable energy sources are not stable and quite unpredictable. So storage will be a very, very important aspect. As Daniel said, he started off working with me for his final year project in his M.Sc. by Research, and later on during his PhD I told Daniel, let's try to see if you can carry out your PhD in an area that integrates storage. Daniel took this very seriously, and from there we came up with the idea of using compressed air at sea to store the energy.”

Buhagiar said that they did some early modelling of the system, and were able to apply for the first patent with the support of the UoM’s Knowledge Transfer Office. Sant added that they received funding from the Malta Council for Science and Technology as well as from the Research, Innovation and Development Trust of the UoM. He said that with support from the Malta Maritime Award through Transport Malta, it was made possible for a prototype to be designed and constructed. They explained that this prototype was deployed in the Grand Harbour seawater and showed “very remarkable results about how efficient it is to store energy in compressed air within seawater”.

Buhagiar said that after this, FLASC started receiving interest from key stakeholders in the sector who saw an opportunity in the development, which led to a company being started. This company was set up in the Netherlands, where Buhagiar currently resides, along with a team of engineers working with him.

The two engineers expressed gratitude towards their team made up of other researchers and engineers working on this project, some based in the Netherlands with Buhagiar while others are working as part of the research team with the University of Malta, which they also thanked for its continuous support.

When asked what being chosen as finalists for the European Inventor award means to them and their work, Sant replied that it fills them with a strong sense of satisfaction as they are further encouraged to move on with developing this technology. He added that the FLASC system has been evaluated by many experts, and that he is convinced they are seeing the potential.

“Of course we look forward to continuing advancing the technology, because we are convinced that this is something that will have an impact on society … At the end of the day, our role as engineers is to improve the quality of life,” Sant said.

Buhagiar concluded by saying that they both feel it is a very prestigious award, and that he is very happy that they were nominated as it brings very good exposure to the system and the startup. He continued that it is also a validation that what they are doing has an impact and is seen as something that is tangible.

The 2024 European Inventor award event is set to be held on 9 July in Malta.

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