Posted on: January 10, 2020 at 6:32 pm
Last updated: July 13, 2020 at 2:47 pm

The sun gives life to plants and microorganisms, provides us with warmth and daylight, and is an endless source of renewable energy. By all accounts, solar energy should be our first choice for heating our water and homes and powering our cars, but there’s just one problem that has stumped the solar industry for quite some time – the issue of storage. Scientists have struggled to find a cheap and efficient way to store the energy generated by solar power for the long-term.

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That is, until now. A team from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden has developed a specialized solar thermal fuel that can store energy from the sun for up to eighteen years [1].

Liquified Molecules

This thermal fuel is actually a molecule, called norbornadiene (pronounced nor-born-a-dye-een) in liquid form, and the team at Chalmers has been working on improving it since 2018 [2].

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Until now, the best method we have come up with to store solar energy  is in the form of a battery. Tesla has been leading the charge in developing this technology, and while it is very effective, it’s expensive. To have the company’s new Powerwall system installed in your home, it’ll cost approximately 20 thousand dollars [3]. Not surprisingly, this cost is prohibitive for most people who want to power their homes with renewable energy.

The team in Sweden is hoping that this new technology will give more people the opportunity to power their homes with sunlight.”A solar thermal fuel is like a rechargeable battery, but instead of electricity, you put sunlight in and get heat out, triggered on demand,” says Jeffrey Grossman, who leads a lab at MIT that works on such materials [9].

Read: Microalgae System Turns Pollution Into Oxygen Equivalent To More Than 300 Trees

Photoswitches For Solar Energy Storage

This new technology uses a process called photoisomerization to convert norbornadiene (NBD) into its isomer, quadricyclane (QC) [4]. 

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Before going any further, let’s get a few things straight:

Isomers are two molecules that are made up of the same atoms (let’s say, they have the same “ingredients”), but these atoms are arranged differently in space [5]. Think of isomers like a pair of gloves: both gloves have four fingers and a thumb, but a right-hand glove will only fit the right hand, and a left-hand glove will only the left hand. In this case, our two isomers are norbornadiene (NBD) and quadricyclane (QC) both are made up of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen, but these atoms are in different sequences[6].

Conversion of the solar fuel from norbornadiene to quadricyclane.
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Photoisomerization occurs when the molecules in one isomer (NBD) absorb sunlight and become excited. This causes them to rearrange themselves to become a new isomer, in this case QC [7]. When NBD is converted to its isomer QC, energy gets trapped within the molecule. This new energized molecule is stable and has strong chemical bonds, which is why it can store that energy for such a long time [6]. The important aspect of this process is that it can be reversed [7].

Read: Enormous Floating Solar Farms Can Extract Carbon Dioxide from Seawater to Replace Fossil Fuels

Releasing the Energy

The ability to store that energy is incredibly important, but once it’s stored, what’s the point of having it if you can’t get it back out? Its like locking something in a safe and then losing the key.

In order to get the energy that was trapped in the QC molecule, you have to convert it back to NBD. To do this, the team at Chalmers passed the QC molecule through a catalyst to rearrange the molecules back to their original state [8].

This process causes the molecule to release energy in the form of heat. The scientists working on the project found that when the molecule was passed through a catalyst, it heated up the fuel by 63 degrees Celsius, or 113 degrees Fahrenheit [8].

This liquid heat could be used to heat homes, offices, public spaces, and much more.

Renewable and Cost-Effective Energy

This solar fuel can be stored in uninsulated tanks inside houses or factories, or could even be trucked or piped between cities and solar farms. Kasper Moth-Poulson, one of the team members working on the project, explains that both the fuel and the catalyst experience very little damage during the process, which allows them to run the system in a closed loop, picking up sunlight and dropping off heat over and over again.

“We’ve run it though 125 cycles without any significant degradation,” Moth-Poulsen says [9]. 

Per kilogram, this fuel can store up to 250-watt hours of energy, which is twice the capacity of the Tesla Powerwall battery [9].

The Future of Solar Power

While this work is very exciting, it is not quite ready to be commercialized just yet. 

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Moth-Poulsen says, “but there is still a lot to figure out.” [9]

So far, the team has developed multiple fuel variants, so the next step is to create a single fuel that has a long shelf-life, high energy density and good recyclability [9].

Right now, the fuel’s efficiency is quite low, since it only responds to the shortest (ultraviolet and blue) wavelengths of the sun, which is only five percent of the solar energy available to us. The team is working on increasing the fuel’s sensitivity to respond to a broader range of wavelengths [9].

When it comes to electricity production, hotter is always better, and Moth-Poulson is aiming to up his temperature increase to 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit) or more [9].

The hope is that this new technology will be available in the next ten years [1].

“When I started, there was really only one research group working on these kinds of systems,” Moth-Poulsen recalls. But progress has drawn others to the challenge. “Now there are teams in the U.S., in China, in Germany — about 15 around the world,” he says [9].

With so many groups working on the project, we may be heating our homes with sunlight by 2030.

Read More: Transparent Solar Panels Will Turn Windows Into Green Energy Collectors

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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