With billionaire backing, Alphabet’s latest spinoff tackles energy storage

Renewable Energy

Alphabet Inc. today launched a new venture focused on developing energy storage technology, which is seen as a key to driving global adoption of renewable power sources.

The freshly spun out Malta Inc. was incubated at the search giant’s X research division. It joins previous X graduates such as Waymo LLC, Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle business, which has positioned itself as leader of the nascent self-driving car market. More recent spinoffs include the Wing drone unit and Loon, a group building high-altitude internet balloons.

Alphabet is taking a different approach with Malta than its previous moonshot ventures. Because of the complexity of the startup’s mission, the search giant has decided to bring in outside investors.

Malta’s launch today was accompanied by the news that it has secured a $26 million financing round led by Washington-based Breakthrough Energy Ventures LLC. The fund’s investor roster includes Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, SoftBank Group Corp. founder Masayoshi Son and several other billionaires. Bill Gates serves as chairman.

The capital will help Malta fuel the development of its energy storage technology, which is based on the research of Nobel prize-winning physicist Robert Laughlin. The startup’s systems rely on salt and other relatively inexpensive materials to retain power.

When electricity flows into a Malta system, it uses the energy to heat up salt stored in one container and simultaneously cool down an antifreezelike liquid inside another. Both materials possess the ability maintain their temperatures for extended periods of time. The result, according to Malta, is that the technology can store energy for days or potentially even weeks.

To release electricity back into the grid, the system uses the hot salt and cool liquid to produce two powerful gusts of air that in turn spin a power turbine. Malta will reportedly look to set up a pilot implementation in the wake of the funding to demonstrate the technology’s capabilities. The startup sees China as one possible location for the project.

The long-term goal is to provide an economic way for utilities to store excess renewable energy. Because solar and wind farms produce the most power at times when demand is fairly limited, a sizable percentage of their output currently has to be discarded. Introducing the ability to store this electricity for later use could help significantly drive down costs, thus boosting adoption.

Besides Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Malta’s efforts are backed by renewable power firm Concord New Energy Group Ltd. and Alfa Laval AB, a Swedish maker of industrial equipment.

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