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Could plain-ol’ beach sand be the next frontier in renewable energy?

Virginia Beach oceanfront distorted
Virginia beach oceanfront (photo by Crystal Graham)

Dear EarthTalk: Could plain-ol’ beach sand be the next frontier in renewable energy? – Paul C., Baltimore, MD

In our ongoing quest for sustainable energy solutions, innovative technologies are necessary to complement renewable sources like solar and wind power. One such potential breakthrough revolves around an unexpected but abundant resource: beach sand.

Sand batteries represent an emerging approach to energy storage, particularly effective in harnessing and retaining energy from intermittent sources like solar and wind. The physical properties of sand, such as its ability to store heat at high temperatures, make it an excellent medium for energy retention. This capacity is being leveraged by innovative technologies to create a more stable and reliable energy supply, as sand can efficiently accumulate and release heat as required​​.

The science behind sand batteries involves heating sand to high temperatures using surplus energy generated from renewable sources. This stored heat can then be converted back into energy when needed. This system capitalizes on the thermal properties of sand to create a natural battery that can offer both heating solutions and electricity generation​. As National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Patrick Davenport notes, “Sand and concrete silos with refractory insulation are very inexpensive materials that can lead to low-cost energy storage.” A few key players currently pioneering this technology include Polar Night Energy in Finland, which has implemented a sand battery for residential and commercial heating, and EnergyNest in Norway, which specializes in thermal energy storage using similar principles.

Using sand for energy storage offers multiple benefits: it is abundant, low-cost, eco-friendly, and can store heat for long periods. This makes sand an attractive option for enhancing the stability of renewable energy systems, and providing a reliable energy supply even during times of low sunlight or wind.

Sand battery technology is currently being tested and used in various projects worldwide, not only demonstrating the viability of sand as an energy storage solution but highlighting its potential scalability and integration into existing energy infrastructures.

Despite the potential, challenges that include technical, economic and logistical hurdles that be addressed. Developing and deploying sand battery technology on a large scale requires significant research and development efforts. Additionally, the role of government and private investment is crucial in overcoming barriers and driving forward the innovation needed for widespread adoption​​.

Sand batteries are a promising solution for renewable energy storage, potentially revolutionizing how we store and utilize energy from renewable sources. Their ability to provide a stable, reliable energy supply could be a game-changer for the renewable sector.

CONTACTS: Can sand be used to create energy on demand?, www.asce.org/publications-and-news/civil-engineering-source/civil-engineering-magazine/article/2023/03/can-sand-be-used-to-create-energy-on-demand; Using Hot Sand To Store Energy, cleantechnica.com/2021/08/31/using-hot-sand-to-store-energy/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at emagazine.com. To donate, visit earthtalk.org. Send questions to: [email protected].

Roddy Scheer

Roddy Scheer

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. Send questions to [email protected].