New flywheel system developed by UK-based engineering student

Materials World magazine
1 Sep 2016

A UK engineering student has developed an energy storage system that could prove revolutionary for renewables. Natalie Daniels speaks to Abigail Carson about its design and plans for its commercialisation. 

Tell me about the Flywheel Energy Store design.

During my time studying Mechanical Engineering at Lancaster University, UK, I proposed the idea of a storage unit to my supervisor. Throughout the year, I recognised that new storage solutions were an up-and-coming area that needed extra work, and this inspired my design. The Flywheel Energy Store (FES) can provide energy security and independence worldwide, but could also eliminate waste in power networks, pumping water to villages and allowing for cleaner cooking and heating in developing countries, instant charging of electric vehicles, and off-grid energy storage.

How did you design the storage solution?

I started by completing a literature review of the background research – an essential requirement that all students have to undertake. I researched designs, including those from NASA and Flybrid, to understand what is already on the market and how they optimise their devices. I slowly created my design with simulations – finding out how to better what was already on the market. I am hoping my design will be able to be used to store electricity generated by renewables, including wind turbines and solar panels.

Did you face any challenges?

I continually trialled different simulations and found that sometimes I would get an unexpected result – it often led to something more promising. 

How could your design help store renewable energy better than those on the market?

The global energy crisis is the biggest and most urgent problem that needs addressing. This solves the intermittency problems of renewable harvesting. It makes something that is intermittent constant. I hope it will lend itself well to fossil fuels. The lifespan of this technology is around 30 years, which is multiple times the lifespan of most energy stores.

What are its specific advantages over other energy stores?

There are a number of advantages. Firstly, ramping rates – the FES can charge and discharge almost instantly, unlike batteries and most energy stores. This could revolutionise the principle of hybrid and electric vehicles, as instant charging would be possible, making the prospect of long journeys much more promising and feasible. Secondly, it is virtually immune to charge and discharge abuse – batteries are easily damaged in this way and need replacing when this occurs. The FES withstands power transfer variations and similar abuse. It also has a clean design – almost all parts can be replaced and recycled and no chemicals are involved in the design, unlike batteries. Lastly, size is also a huge benefit. Currently a single unit is only the size of a football, so many can be used as a larger energy store, with the ability to disable a single unit if needed. 

Your design reached a rotation of 144,000rpm. Can this be improved with further testing?

It could be optimised further. I had an end date for the project and I reached that limit within the timeframe set, but given more time on the project this could definitely be increased.

Why could it replace batteries?

The most significant benefit the FES has over batteries is the ramping rate ability – this is how fast it can charge and/or discharge. In other words, how quickly the FES reaches top speed and then back down to static again. The FES system is a significant alternative that does not require maintenance or monitoring. 

How do you plan to commercialise this technology? 

There has been a lot of interest in my project and I am currently seeking investment and looking into further R&D plans together with a UK-based company to produce this on a worldwide scale. I have just finished my third year at university and am now going on to complete my Master's degree. I can't say much more about the upcoming R&D, but I plan to keep exploring further and improve on the current design.