A timely collaboration between a University Lecturer and his PhD student is revolutionising Australia’s transition to renewable energy.
Seven years ago, Alex Post, a student at the University of Newcastle, was immersed in writing his PhD on concentrated solar power. Little did he know that in a few years he would join forces with his lecturer to form a company that would ultimately help fast-track Australia’s transition to renewable energy.
While working in the Materials Science department, Post’s PhD supervisor, Professor Erich Kisi, was five years into researching a new alloy that showed promise in storing renewable energy as heat.
As Professor Kisi’s student, Post knew there was a huge need for a new material to reliably hold power from wind and sunshine, so he quickly became interested in exploring with Kisi the alloy’s capabilities.
After many months of rigorous lab testing, student and teacher realised they were on to something. Kisi’s alloy, which he called MGA, had the potential to store energy – specifically, renewable energy. The pair and a second lecturer from the University, Dylan Cuskelly, then set about learning how to commercialise the technology with the help of the CSIRO ‘ON Accelerate’ Program, aimed at supporting researchers from publicly funded organisations to take their ideas from the lab to the market.
In 2019, the hard work and commitment paid off, with the trio forming the company MGA Thermal. Post says it’s been a steep learning curve from testing the technology and securing the IP through to creating a company and talking to potential customers.
MGA’s journey from university lab to starting and growing a company has since also been given the added impetus of a $495,600 Accelerating Commercialisation grant through the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme.
Reaching that point is itself a measure of a technology’s potential. But it has also required both technical advances and a different way of thinking.
“My career aspirations were initially in academia,” says Post. “But I saw that the technology needed to be out there and started doing the things needed to be done to get it there. One thing led to another and here we are.”
Blocks of power
An initial injection of funds from private investors helped the fledgling company develop blocks made from the special alloy that is a combination of graphite and recycled aluminium chips. Post says each block is about the size of an ice cream container, weighs 10 kilograms and can store enough solar and wind energy to power the average home for an hour.
“The power grid can become unstable because renewable generation is highly variable – the sun goes behind a cloud, or a gust of wind stops blowing and you need something to kick in and supply that energy quickly, and to get you through the night until the sun comes up the next day. So, you need huge storage capacity to store the renewable energy for long periods and dispatch it onto the grid when you need it. That’s where we come in.”
The trio realised the blocks needed to be small and stackable to easily create scalable thermal energy storage systems. While the material is high-tech, the company turned to a second-hand concrete brick-making machine to refine its product’s shape and size.
“Because we were engineers, we were trying to develop all these bespoke complicated machines to make our blocks. We finally thought that, while the materials that are going into the blocks are very complicated, the process of making them could be simplified. People have been making concrete blocks and bricks for centuries, so maybe we could use that simple concept as a foundation and adjust it to suit our needs.”
Grant funds pilot plant
Shortly after perfecting the dimensions of the blocks, MGA Thermal secured the Accelerating Commercialisation grant. This helped fund a pilot manufacturing plant at Tomago, Newcastle. The plant allowed the company to demonstrate the economics of commercially manufacturing its MGA blocks.
Usman Iftikhar previously worked as a Commercialisation Facilitator with i4 Connect, the service delivery partner for the Entrepreneurs’ Programme Accelerating Commercialisation service. Iftikhar was one of several Facilitators who assisted MGA Thermal with its Accelerating Commercialisation grant application. He says the company ticked all the boxes going into the application process.
“MGA has a unique product. It’s novel and they already had a couple of large partners that were willing to trial their technology. They raised some of their own capital, which is important and there’s a large opportunity for energy storage globally,” Iftikhar says. “The world is in transition towards renewable energy and storage is a critical component, so there are significant market opportunities.”
Post says i4 Connect Commercialisation Facilitators worked with MGA Thermal for close to 18 months and were instrumental in expanding the company’s horizons.
“They helped us appreciate the value of the company through a different lens – more of a commercial lens than a purely technical one. They provided guidance like the number of jobs we could potentially be creating, the benefits to Australian industry, onshore manufacturing and other flow-on effects from manufacturing a new technology. This helped us with our approach to investors, to government and to customers and provided inroads to other government grant programs.”
It’s that approach that recently helped MGA Thermal secure another grant – $1.27 million from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to fund a technology demonstrator to show potential investors how the technology works.
Iftikhar advises start-ups to follow the example of MGA Thermal and connect with facilitators long before submitting an Accelerating Commercialisation grant application.
“Facilitators can provide advice and guidance before they’re in the system, so even if they’re not suitable for this particular grant, we can tell them what’s out there and what they can do, and we can help them think about what their roadmap looks like.”
MGA Thermal now has about 20 GigaWatt hours (GWh) worth of customer interest from 20 companies, all at varying stages. Its 25-strong workforce will be capable of manufacturing 1000 blocks a day early next year. The number of employees is set to grow to 50 by the end of 2023, and the company will eventually produce gigawatt hours of storage each year.
MGA Thermal is confident its future is as bright as the sunshine it stores and acknowledges considerable impetus provided by the Accelerating Commercialisation program.
“We’ve got some very large projects on the horizon, 100 to 500-megawatt scale, which is significantly larger than the big battery in South Australia. So, we’re focusing on scaling up our manufacturing capacity as fast as we can to meet these huge projects. We may also need to move to a purpose-built factory – still here in Newcastle – because the region is rapidly developing into a renewable energy hub,” Post says.