111
$\begingroup$

One of the main reasons why we haven't switched to clean energy is the lack of efficient storage methods - But, why aren't we using dead weights to store energy and draw it back later when needed? As an example of what I mean:

$\endgroup$

12 Answers 12

133
$\begingroup$

You can use dead weights, but you need a huge amount of weight.

For example the biggest pumped hydroelectric system in the world (the Gianelli Hydroelectric Plant in California, USA) uses water stored in a reservoir about 9 miles long by 5 miles wide, lifted through a height of about 300 feet. Even then, it can only supply about 5% of California's electricity usage for less than 2 weeks before running dry - and given the current long term droughts in California, it can't even do that, because there would be no water available to refill it.

Trying to build devices like this for individual homes would be hopelessly uneconomical.

One way to get "free" energy to pump the water is to use tidal barrages, but even in the most suitable locations, the amount of power you get from a given area of water behind the barrage is only the same order of magnitude as covering that entire area with solar panels. The biggest operating tidal barrage in Europe (which has been running for about 20 years) only supplies about 0.1% of France's total electricity consumption.

$\endgroup$
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ There is a project to power up lights for non-electricity places , GravityLight $\endgroup$ – lois6b Jan 17 '17 at 7:14
  • 17
    $\begingroup$ You might like to mention that it is common to reverse hydro plants so as to pump water uphill when the thermal plants in a grid are making more power than being used. It's a common strategy in networks with mixed supply to smooth out demand. $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Jan 17 '17 at 9:06
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ Its not the amount of energy you can get out of a pumped storage reservoir, it's the fact that it's available on demand at (ideally) any time and at a high rate (power). A large head of water is best, but tidal reservoirs combine net generation with storage. For pure storage see Dinorwig power station (linked below) $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Jan 17 '17 at 9:44
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Two weeks is plenty if we just need it to get through periods without wind or sunlight/daylight. $\endgroup$ – gerrit Jan 17 '17 at 14:42
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ "Only" 5% of California for 2 weeks makes pumped storage sound like a failure. Remember California is 39 million people, about the same as Poland. Gianelli contains 126 GWh when at capacity! That's over two days production from the 2 GW Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. Diablo Canyon can "only" power 5% of California at peak load. $\endgroup$ – Schwern Jan 17 '17 at 20:52
92
$\begingroup$

Let's spin some numbers to further illustrate the poor energy density of gravity-based storage systems. Assume that you have a 100 kilogram lead weight that you can lower into a 10 meter deep hole in your yard.

Now, how much energy can it store? This is given by potential energy formula $E = mgh$, thus $E = 100\,\mathrm{kg} \cdot 9.8\,\mathrm{m}/\mathrm{s}^2 \cdot 10\,\mathrm{m} = 9.8\,\mathrm{kJ} \approx 2.7\,\mathrm{Wh}$.

For comparison, a single AA-sized battery stores about $2\,\mathrm{Wh}$ of energy.

$\endgroup$
  • 32
    $\begingroup$ Does that imply that a single AA-sized battery with a suitable motor and gearing could lift four 25 KG suitcases to my third-floor apartment? $\endgroup$ – dotancohen Jan 18 '17 at 8:37
  • 30
    $\begingroup$ @dotancohen Ignoring a few complications and efficiency losses, yup, almost. And you could gain extra efficiency from employing counter-weights, for example. Gravity is really, really weak - consider how easy it is for your puny chemical-powered body to counteract the force of the whole planet whenever you jump or walk the stairs (and a typical person only clocks out at about 50-100 W of sustained mechanical power ouput; peak around 100-400 W). And chemical energy is still peanuts to nuclear energy - if we ever discover a way to make practical and safe nuclear batteries, we're golden :D $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jan 18 '17 at 9:07
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Raising the question : how much more mass should a planet have so that storing energy in weight becomes convenient? But that is maybe a post for world building Se $\endgroup$ – Three Diag Jan 18 '17 at 9:47
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @ThreeDiag however, that'd make a lot of things less efficient, thus increasing our energy needs at the same time. I'm assuming most transportational friction scales linearly with the strength of gravity. $\endgroup$ – John Gibb Jan 19 '17 at 18:54
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Luaan We note the obligatory xkcd: xkcd.com/1162 :-) $\endgroup$ – SusanW Jan 22 '17 at 18:19
61
$\begingroup$

We do use mass in a gravitational field to store energy and have done for hundreds of years!

Grandfather Clocks

Longcase Clock, Wikimedia Commons

Grandfather Clocks have used powering weights since the 1660s. This was when they first gained their tall thin shape. The weights seen in the picture slowly descend as their stored energy is released. In order to add energy back into the system the weight needs to be wound back up.

Ffestiniog Pumped Power Scheme

Ffestiniog Power Station

The Ffestiniog Power Station in Wales was opened in 1963 and was the UK's first large scale pumped hydroelectric energy storage system. The reservoir works in a very similar fasion to other grid storage solutions. When excess energy is produced (because coal power stations can't be shut down immmediatly for example) water is pumped from the lower reservoir back up to the higher one. When there is a surge in demand water flows in the reverse direction back down through turbines smoothing out any peak demand spikes making the whole grid more efficient.

GravityLight

Gravity Light

Finally something very similar to the design in your question. Here is a product which recently went through an Indiegogo funding campaign. It's called GravityLight and works by the action of a falling weight to provide power to remote villages and others who live off-grid.

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "Pumped storage" is the key term to include w.r.t. hydroelectric power schemes. $\endgroup$ – Dave Jan 18 '17 at 17:43
45
$\begingroup$

Another way to store energy in mass is the use of flywheels. You simply take a massive wheel and spin it up to store energy, use an electrical generator as a break to take energy out.

Their main limitation for use outside of the realm of professional settings where they can be properly monitored and maintained by experts is the potential to fail catastrophically.

$\endgroup$
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ +1. I did see the effect of a 19th century steam powered engine flywheel failure (the governor jammed). It took out the walls of the windmill shaped building it was housed in. $\endgroup$ – user140606 Jan 17 '17 at 1:42
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ Every energy storage with high energy density has the potential of catastrophic failure. It is inherent and unavoidable: Liquid fuel, batteries, you name it. $\endgroup$ – Peter A. Schneider Jan 17 '17 at 9:37
  • 23
    $\begingroup$ Every energy storage with high energy density has the potential of catastrophic failure. It is inherent and unavoidable .... Sugar? (Higher energy density than most high explosives). Lard? I suppose a heart attack is a catastrophic failure of sorts. Sorry, straying off topic. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Jan 17 '17 at 13:43
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ @nigel222: youtube.com/watch?v=ojlskUCh6rA sugar is quite explosive. It is just the fact that we store sugar in (relative)big blocks that have little surface to react whit oxigen that makes it save. $\endgroup$ – m.fuss Jan 17 '17 at 15:16
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ At the risk of getting even further off topic, here's what comes to my mind when I think of catastrophic failure of sugar storage: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Molasses_Flood $\endgroup$ – user142360 Jan 17 '17 at 16:13
21
$\begingroup$

We do. Just the weights we use are made not from lead, but from water. Many water reservoirs are also used to store energy by pumping water up when you have energy surplus, and letting it come down through the generators when you need energy. All you need for this purpose is two or more reservoirs at different altitudes.

$\endgroup$
12
$\begingroup$

We do, and we do it in the form of solid mass, too!

ARES uses rails to move concrete weights up and down.

 

Potential energy storage or gravity energy storage was under active development in 2013 in association with the California Independent System Operator. It examined the movement of earth-filled hopper rail cars driven by electric locomotives) from lower to higher elevations.

There is even an idea to use winches, as you described:

Stratosolar proposes to use winches supported by buoyant platforms at an altitude of 20 kilometers, to raise and lower solid masses.

Thus, your question is void, there is no reason we don't, because we do.

$\endgroup$
10
$\begingroup$

Indeed pumped storage, ARES, and Gravity Light are all examples of using weights to store energy but, like an earlier post suggested, the mass / vertical height required (and resulting cost) makes many examples prohibitively expensive. With the right geography, pumped storage is a relatively inexpensive way of storing large amounts of energy, but it only really makes sense at large scales because of many factors, including the pipeline infrastructure and the distance from typically remote mountainous areas to centres of demand (affecting the build cost and cost of transmission).

To provide large amounts of electricity storage capacity for a long period (e.g. 20 years or more of daily operation), technologies like pumped storage and compressed air are currently much cheaper than batteries, though they are constrained by geography.

Other electricity storage technologies involving weights include those being developed by Gravitricity, Gravity Power (shown below), and Ground-Breaking Energy Storage (effectively cutting a large cylinder of earth and then raising it by pumping water underneath).

Gravity Power's underground energy storage system

We can also use buoyancy as a means of storing energy. Research at the University of Windsor in Canada is ongoing into buoyancy energy storage, where a buoy is pulled down towards the seabed using a winch to charge the system, then allowed to rise back up to the surface of the sea in order to discharge the system and generate electricity. The winch is connected to a motor-generator in just the same way as the pump-turbine in a pumped storage plant is connected to a motor-generator, and can be located at the water surface (either on nearby land or on some kind of platform/barge) and connected to the base of the buoy via a pulley. Others are working on similar technology, including a company called Buoyant Energy.

Patent application 'Buoyancy energy storage and energy generation system', US 20100107627 A1

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hello and welcome to Physics.SE. This site: Heindl's Gravity Storage runs some numbers on the first idea. $\endgroup$ – Ghanima Jan 17 '17 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ Gravitricity has a beautifully animated website illustrating the concept, but they don't appear to have actually built anything $\endgroup$ – roryok Oct 10 '18 at 8:07
3
$\begingroup$

If anyone has ever owned or used a self-winding watch, then this technology which has been in existence at least since the 1960s, uses small weights to wind the watch forever, barring any mechanical breakdown. Seiko Watches made many such models in both men's and women's styles. I have one that was recently stolen that was in perfect working order, right up until the day that it was stolen. It is probably worth quite a bit of money, both as collector's item as well as a very well designed near-antique.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ And they still make them, have one on my wrist at the moment - just a year old... $\endgroup$ – user207455 Oct 20 '18 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ Wow. I'd love to have my old one back, but barring that, I would love to have ANOTHER one. Where did you get your watch? Is it an antique, or is it a brand new one? If they are still in business, and still making watches, that would be remarkable. Also, I would love to have a few Seiko's for different occasions, as the one that I originally had was a rugged, action-style watch, as opposed to a "dress watch." Thank you for this information, it sort of made my day. Now I'll have to look for a Seiko in my price range. Thanks again. $\endgroup$ – Ace Hall Oct 21 '18 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ It was a present, bought in Switzerland and is a Kinetic Divers 200m... Hope you get one! $\endgroup$ – user207455 Oct 21 '18 at 19:24
3
$\begingroup$

Another existing example of using weights to store energy is the Raised Weight Hydraulic Accumulator. Hydraulic power is used to raise a weight, which, when it falls pumps that hydraulic power back out again. A system like this used to be used to power London's Tower Bridge.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Gravel Energy Storage System describes systems using a bucket conveyor belt to move gravel up and down a hill. This is claimed to be more efficient and cheaper than pumped hydro, especially when a natural reservoir is not available.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Pretty safe as well if you avoid landslides. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Jan 22 '17 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ The sidebar of that linked page includes stories about "free energy" so take that gravel energy storage project with a grain of salt $\endgroup$ – roryok Oct 10 '18 at 8:05
3
$\begingroup$

Other answers have noted why we don't use systems like this today, but here is another example of a gravity-based power generator that was used in the past.

I was unable to find a source or picture of this, so maybe someone else can help me out. I'll update if I can find details. I know this info from visiting the Winchester House in San Jose, California and taking the tour.

In the late 1800's and early 1900's gravity-based power generators were used in the homes of some wealthy individuals, including the home of Sarah Winchester. Somewhere beneath the home there would be a generator with a big crank, which would be connected to a platform with heavy rocks on it. The chain would slowly lower and provide power to small electrical systems in the house. A servant would go crank the generator to rewind the weight a couple times per day.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

The amount of heat produced for a given amount of kinetic energy lost to friction is tiny. For that reason, a weight can't give you anywhere near enough energy to heat up water very much. The reason objects heat up so little from friction is because their total thermal energy at room temperature is already really large because atoms around room temperature tend to move at about 300 m/s. We're actually lucky molecules have a tendency to move so fast because it also means chemical potential energy can be converted into quite a lot of mechanical energy. For that reason, I climbed the CN tower at a normal speed for a much shorter staircase the whole way without getting tired or stopping to rest at all and took 26m8s to do it. The chemical potential energy of reacting oxygen and sugar is actually a lot more per mass than 1/2((300m/s)^2).

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ What? Are you implying OP is asking to generate heat from the friction of the weight, and not from effectively storing as gravitational potential energy? $\endgroup$ – Trotski94 Jan 23 '17 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ +1 to @JamesTrotter 's comment. The question has nothing to do with friction or kinetic energy. $\endgroup$ – Time4Tea Aug 31 '18 at 6:52

protected by Community Jan 17 '17 at 16:25

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.