Coal is unloaded onto large piles at the Ulan Coal mines near the central New South Wales town of Mudgee in Australia, March 8, 2018.
Coal is unloaded onto large piles at the Ulan Coal mines near the central New South Wales town of Mudgee in Australia, March 8, 2018.

SYDNEY - Researchers in Australia say they have developed a technique to make coal-fired power plants run without coal. They say new thermal energy storage blocks can heat water, which, in turn, produces steam to power turbines using existing power station infrastructure. 

Researchers at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales say their thermal blocks would allow coal-fired power stations to run coal-free, delivering clean, renewable electricity.   

The bricks are made of graphite and metals, including zinc and aluminum, plus other undisclosed materials.   

The Australian team says they store energy from solar and wind farms in the form of heat, which can make steam to run electricity-generating turbines.   

The aim is to fit the technology to existing power stations where, instead of burning coal, the blocks would generate power without pollution.     

Professor of engineering at Australia’s University of Newcastle Erich Kisi says the technology would allow coal-fired stations to phase out the use of the fossil fuel. 

“As coal burning is reduced, storage of renewable as thermal energy is ramped up.  The final thermal energy storage volume is comparable in size to the existing boiler houses, and that these massive power stations were themselves built with six or seven decade-old technology, I do not think we should baulk at the challenge of renewing their vitality with 21st century technology,” Kisi said.  

Engineers believe the Australian-made blocks could be used in combination with other energy storage options, such as lithium batteries and hydroelectricity, to provide reliable power.    

The university team says its graphite and metal invention has been proven in the laboratory.   

In 2019, it set up the company MGA Thermal, which aims to sell the technology. 

In partnership with a Swiss company, a full-scale trial of the bricks at a modified power plant is expected to start next year.  

Like any new technology, the blocks’ inventors concede they must be financially viable before they could be expected for wide use in commercial projects. 

Australia is one of the world’s worst per capita emitters of greenhouse gases. 

That's in large part because of its reliance on cheap supplies of domestic coal to generate its electricity.