The idea is impressive. A lot of energy can be stored in liquid air. And there is air everywhere. A start-up wants to make the energy transition a sure-fire success around the world.
Munich – Justin Scholz quickly makes a few notes. “I have just spoken to an investor,” the 28-year-old industrial engineer apologizes. He wants to bring an idea to the man that sounds ambitious. “We want to make the energy transition a sure-fire success around the world, and for that we need something that is available everywhere,” says the native of Munich. That is air. The start-up Phelas from Gilching near Munich, founded by Scholz and three colleagues, has set itself the task of using it in liquid form as energy storage. The founder tries to explain clearly how much energy can be stored in liquid air. “One liter of liquid air becomes 727 liters of gaseous air.” Even laypeople immediately understand that this conversion causes enormous pressure differences and energies are released that are suitable for generating electricity. There are also other, immediately obvious advantages. If, for example, something leaks, only air and no poison escapes. “Air cannot burn like a lithium-ion battery,” explains Scholz. The storage systems that Phelas plans to have a system shelf life of at least 15 years. This means that, unlike conventional batteries, they do not lose their storage capacity over this period of time, i.e. they have a much longer shelf life.
A foundation in the middle of the pandemic
With this idea, Scholz, physicist Pit Sippel, energy engineer Leon Haupt and management consultant Christopher Knoch founded Phelas on November 16, 2020 in the middle of the corona pandemic after two and a half years of preparatory work, making their company young even for start-ups. Well-known sponsors such as the European Space Agency Esa, the insurer Munich Re or the Initiative for Industrial Innovators already exist.
“We definitely assume that it has the potential,” says Esa expert Thomas Balletre. Technologically, the Phelas idea is definitely feasible. It could become part of the energy transition, even if there are always risks with a young technology like this. “Phelas convinced us in all respects”, attests Munich Re. These points range from feasibility and scalable business perspectives to the climate aspect, which is particularly important for the insurer. Munich Re hopes that Phelas will develop an electricity storage system that will soon make fossil-based electricity generation completely unnecessary.
Use on solar fields or wind parks
Scholz and his colleagues are ambitious. “We want to be on the market in 2025,” he says of the business plan. Technology and liquid air storage systems with capacities in the megawatt range are to be packaged in containers the size of shipping containers, which the Phelas founders will see in the future on the site of solar fields or wind farms. They should bridge the dark doldrums there, i.e. store excess energy produced for a few hours or even days for the time when no wind blows or no sun shines. In a second step, the storage facilities could also be offered to power generators or industrial companies with high electricity requirements.
The founding quartet is also convinced of the economic efficiency. The storage systems can be produced inexpensively in large numbers and, due to their standard size, are easy to transport as shipping containers, enthuses Scholz. He sees his own innovation in the configuration of the overall system. Ultimately, the company plans to set up its own memory production facility, which will probably cost a double-digit million sum by the time it is planned to launch in five years.
Potential investors consider Phelas to have a promising future
First of all, a functioning prototype has to be presented to potential investors and an ongoing first round of financing has to be successfully concluded. The first quarter of 2021 is targeted for this. “Our technology is very cost-effective, especially for large amounts of stored electricity,” says Scholz. So far there are no direct competitors. Only the British company High View is pursuing a similar approach, but is planning the construction of large-scale refinery-like plants that cannot be scaled as with Phelas.
Potential investors such as the Initiative for Industrial Innovators also consider the start-up’s approach to be promising. With a small amount she is already promoting it and is considering getting into the current financing round. Half of the total capital required for the next stage has already been promised, says Scholz and is confident that the rest will also be pulled ashore. Thereafter, the Phelas founders plan for the end of 2023 with an initial pilot project and two years later with the commercial market entry. But failure is also possible. “We still have big hurdles ahead of us,” admits Scholz. But a vision drives him. “We want to make renewable energies worldwide so inexpensive that it no longer makes sense to burn oil or build coal and gas power plants,” he says, speaking on behalf of his co-founders.