Can Formula One Racing Save the Earth?

In an unexpected twist, the technology used to power race cars doubles as an energy storage device.

Feb 16, 2014 at 10:15AM

Photo credit: Edwin van Nes/Flickr.

Williams Advanced Engineering is an English company that specializes in commercializing Formula One technologies and adapting them for real-world applications. Its latest project involves bringing "flywheel" energy storage technology to two remote island communities on Scotland's Isle of Eigg to stabilize their power grids.

The original application of flywheel technology was introduced in 2009, when it was used as part of a Kinetic Energy Recovery System that is now ubiquitous in Formula One racing. Essentially, waste energy created by braking was harnessed and converted into electrical energy, stored in a flywheel, and in turn used to power the vehicle for up to six seconds per lap.

In this case, however, Williams Advanced Engineering will use it to "smooth" the power flowing from the island's wind turbines and inject stored energy into the grid when needed. It is also expected to help when clouds block the sun from the island's solar array. You can see exactly how the technology works in a short (audio-free) video here.

Right now, the Isle of Eigg is using lead batteries for its energy storage. While that allows the islanders to forgo diesel generators when their other sources aren't producing power, this type of use significantly shortens the lifespan of the batteries. The Formula One technology will allow the Isle of Eigg to use the batteries for long term bulk storage, which should allow them to last much longer.

This application of Formula One technology is just the start; improvements in energy storage are likely to come fast and furious from here on out. There are two reasons for this; the first is that patents are piling up fast for energy storage technologies. The second is that increasingly, entire regions are ditching fossil fuels in favor of renewables.

A recent report by the law firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP shows that nanotechnology patent literature in the energy sector increased 8% from 2012 to 2013. Within the sector, energy storage was the area that experienced the most growth, as patent literature jumped 18% year over year.

Of course, patent literature isn't a synonym for commercially scalable innovation, but it does point to promising developments in the future. Big companies are putting big dollars into solving this problem.

That bodes well for nations following the lead of St. Lucia and the British Virgin Islands, among the countries that announced on Thursday that their respective governments planned to start replacing diesel generators with renewable energy sources.

The experiment begins, of all places, on billionaire Richard Branson's private island, where a microgrid consisting of solar, wind, and battery technologies will be used to power 80% of the island. The larger islands are exploring solar and geothermal options as well. According to The New York Times, the energy minister of St. Lucia is hoping the transition from expensive diesel will make his island more economically competitive.

Perhaps he should give the good people on the Isle of Eigg a call.

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