Operations at a Shell-backed pilot of pioneering energy storage technology have been halted for investigations after a dangerous heat build-up sparked fears of an explosion.

Fire and police departments said they evacuated staff from Australian start-up MGA Thermal, the operator of the facility, and 15 neighbouring businesses within an 800-metre exclusion zone on 6 October. The area has since been deemed safe.

9 News Sydney reported that there were concerns of an explosion at the MGA plant, which is in an industrial site near the city of Newcastle, as the aluminium graphite the company uses can react with water.

The shipping container the energy storage tech was sitting in had overheated from 700 degrees C to around 1,200 degrees C and was said to be “glowing red” by a reporter on the scene.

“We haven’t seen anything like this before,” said fire department superintendent Scott Dodson, who was at the scene along with five fire trucks. Firefighters used CO2 to help cool down the machinery and dry chemical powder extinguishers to douse burning electrical cables. No explosion took place and nobody was hurt.

MGA uses shoebox-sized aluminium graphite metal blocks to store heat energy produced at wind or solar farms.

The stored energy can then be used as steam for power generation or heating as required, with potential applications cited as including hydrogen production and high-temperature industrial processes.

Supermajor Shell confirmed $400,000 of funding from its GameChanger innovation programme for MGA earlier this year.

MGA had last week begun commissioning its 5MWh demonstration unit, which it said would validate the performance of the tech. The plant received a roughly $800,000 grant from the Australian government last year.

Recharge understands operations at the pilot project have now been temporarily suspended for an investigation of the incident.

An MGA spokesperson told Recharge that the company’s “primary focus” has been the safety of the demonstration unit and everyone in the vicinity, stressing that “no one was injured and no further property damage occurred.”

“We’re thankful for the quick and comprehensive support of emergency services to help contain and manage the overheating.”

They continued that the incident is a reminder of the “importance of in-house trials” when working on “cutting-edge technology.”

The learnings will help “accelerate” the development of the system and they said MGA “remains committed” to moving forward.

The incident comes just weeks after a Tesla lithium-ion battery energy storage facility nicknamed “Big Bessie” went up in flames in Queensland, with residents warned to stay indoors to avoid hazardous smoke.

Get the Recharge News App
Read high quality news and insight on the energy transition on-the-go