Ancient Firebricks Could Be the Answer to Storing Clean Energy

MIT researchers believe they have found a viable source for storing excess energy produced by natural resources.
Danielle  De La Bastide
Proposed application of the firebrick-based thermal storage system. MIT

The latest proposal to rid the world of carbon energy involves bricks. Specifically, firebricks that were used thousands of years ago by the Hittites, ancient people who built the city of Hattusa, which is now modern-day Turkey. Their pioneering technology has legs even today, and it could help refuel the world.

Firebrick Resistance-heated Energy Storage

MIT researchers are behind this new idea, claiming that this ancient invention could make use of excess electricity produced from wind farms and other natural energy resources. Right now, the options for storing excess electricity are limited to batteries or hydroelectric systems.

Using electric resistance heaters which convert electricity to heat, could provide the required energy to heat up a large mass of firebricks which can store heat for long periods of time once enclosed in an insulated casing. This heat could then feed generators that convert it back to electricity for industrial processes.

The system called FIRES (Firebrick Resistance-heated Energy Storage) “could have been developed in the 1920s, but there was no market for it then,” said Charles Forsber to MIT News. Forsber, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering is the lead author of the study which appears in the Electricity Journal.


He went on to note that the demand for industrial heat in both the United States and industrialized corners of the world is greater than the need for electricity. In fact, the market would be limitless for a system like FIRES.

“In electricity markets such as Iowa, California, and Germany, the price of electricity drops to near zero at times of high wind or solar output,” Forsberg says. "Once the amount of generating capacity provided by solar power reaches about 15 percent of the total generating mix, or when wind power reaches 30 percent of the total, building such installations can become unprofitable unless there is a sufficient storage capacity to absorb the excess for later use".

Right now, the MIT system is still in the early stages and can only heat up to 1560 degrees Fahrenheit. The heaters he would need to test the bricks properly don’t exist yet. But the aim is to create full-scale prototypes by 2020.

Forsberg thinks there is excess potential in these bricks; he even thinks they could be made electrically conductive.

“We’re finding the right customers for those initial units,” he said, most likely a company like an ethanol refinery, which uses a lot of heat, preferably near a wind farm.

The Bricks

Originally the bricks were made from clay, and was an improvement on the Mesopotamian mudbrick as it was able to handle much higher temperatures, some were able to manage a 3,000 Fahrenheit environment. These bricks even still exist today and were found in what would have been iron-smelting kilns from 3,500 years ago.