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Victory gives team new energy

The FLASC prototype being transported into the Grand Harbour.

A Maltese team has won the PowerUp! regional final in Greece with an innovative start-up. This can pave the way for further developments in the energy sector, Daniel Buhagiar from FLASC team tells Simonne Pace.

A Maltese company, made up of a team of engineers and researchers from different fields, recently impressed judges at the regional final of the PowerUp! competition by InnoEnergy. This to the extent that it saw off seven Greek companies to win the final.

“Taking part was a fantastic experience. Being the only Maltese team in the competition, we were considering ourselves to be the underdogs. However, we were made to feel welcome by all and we persevered during the bootcamp to deliver a strong pitch,” said an excited Daniel Buhagiar from the winning team FLASC, based at the University of Malta.

“We hope that our patented technology – an integrated energy storage system that allows offshore renewables to better meet their energy demands – will be licensed out in the near future,” added the young engineer, who is working on the construction of a small-scale working prototype.

FLASC will be competing against the winners of other regional editions in Budapest on November 22. A grand €20,000 prize is up for grabs, as well as participation in the prestigious InnoEnergy Highway, which helps transform start-ups at an early development stage into successful businesses.

Work on the FLASC technology started in 2014, during Dr Buhagiar’s first year of his PhD studies, during which he discovered the growing field of energy storage for large-scale renewables.

“I started to observe the need for storage, particularly with high percentages of renewables on the grid. I saw an opportunity to develop a system that would not rely on batteries but would use compressed air and pressurised water. This results in a technology with a much longer lifetime that can be scaled up to larger storage capacities,” explained Dr Buhagiar, who from a young age was fascinated by how things work, from washing machines to guitar amplifiers.

Encouraged by Tonio Sant, his supervisor and a senior academic at the University, the team embarked on developing this technology at a conceptual level and the Floating Liquid-piston Accumulator using Seawater under Compression (FLASC) was born.

During this time, the Knowledge Transfer Office at the University of Malta had launched the first Take-Off seed fund, aimed to help academics and entrepreneurs put their concepts to the test or start commercialising existing work.

The team, from left: Federica Strati, Luke Aquilina, Daniel Farrugia, Daniel Buhagiar, Thomas Gauci, Robert Farrugia and Tonio Sant.

The team decided to apply and eventually got positive feedback and funding to start the patenting process. It was also successful in obtaining the Fusion Grant of the Malta Council for Science and Technology, which resulted in a collaboration with industrial partner Medserv plc, for the construction of a scaled prototype. Additional grants from Malta Marittima and the University’s Research, Innovation and Development Trust allowed concurrent studies on other aspects of the technology to be carried out.

“The technology is an energy storage system that can integrate with large-scale offshore renewables, such as floating wind turbines. It allows the turbines to store extra energy when there is no immediate demand and deploy it when it is needed.

“In practice, this means that, for example, wind energy can be ‘scheduled’, so we can decide when to use it, not only when there is a lot of wind,” said Dr Buhagiar, whose passion for building (and breaking) things made the engineering profession an easy and natural choice.

FLASC uses two connected hollow tanks, one at the seabed and one at the surface. Initially both chambers contain a fixed volume of compressed air. To charge the system, extra electricity is used to pump seawater into the seabed chamber where it displaces the air, some of which moves to the surface chamber and is further compressed, basically acting like a spring.
To discharge, the pressurised water is released, passing it through a hydraulic turbine to recover the electricity. A stable pressure can be maintained by selecting the right ratio of volume between the two chambers.

“The configuration becomes particularly interesting when we consider how easy it is to integrate into existing floating platform designs, such as Tension Leg Platforms and spars. Large-scale energy storage brings numerous benefits. It allows renewable energy to be better put to use and also electrical grids to take on higher percentages of renewables. It is a growing field with lots of large players wanting a piece of the action: Tesla, General Electric, Google and Statoil, to name a few.”

What the team hopes to eventually sell is a technology that will be licensed to manufacturers of offshore systems who want to integrate the FLASC technology into their design. A tangible application is currently embodied in the prototype, operating in the Dock 1 area of the Grand Harbour.

For Dr Buhagiar this was a great learning opportunity and a means of exposing the team’s work to an audience outside the typical academic fora.

“It is a stepping stone to new collaborations and to eventually secure funding for further development towards a successful business,” he said.

“If renewables are really to become our main source of energy, then storage will be fundamental to allow them to meet consumer demands. It is also likely that a number of solutions will be required, from small-scale domestic storage to large, grid-scale systems.”

Dr Buhagiar’s future dream is to bring FLASC to a licencee that can integrate this technology and put it to use.
“When working in such an exciting field, plenty of ideas come to mind and I would love to have the opportunity to continue developing new technologies.”

Source: The Times of Malta

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