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Storing Solar Energy for up to 18 years

Image c: Charmers University, Sweden

Solar energy is one of the cleanest and most abundant energies available freely to mankind and one of the most promising for the long-term adoption, in increasing measure, in practically all applications. There are still two issues that need to be further researched and better products developed. The issues are:

1. How do we store Solar Energy? After all, it is available during daytime, and we may need to use it at any time. How do we store it effectively and efficiently? Currently, the best way to store it is in batteries like Lithium batteries, but these batteries may not be 100% environmentally clean and have a limited life.

2. How do we improve the efficiency of the solar cells to near 100%? Today’s best solar panels yield an efficiency of 23% maximum. So, they waste the balance 77% energy.

I wrote about a solar car on LinkedIn and you can check the post here. In fact, the world’s first production-ready solar EV from Dutch company Lightyear is ready for launch (Fig.1) but the catch is that even with the full roof, bonnet and back covered with solar cells (54sqft), it can charge only 35Kms of run per day. So, if you are doing only city driving it is OK without extra charging but when you are going out of town, you will depend on its charged battery (60kWH) range of 625Kms. So, efficiency improvement of solar cells needs much more research and improvement.

Fig.1 Image credit: Times of India

Now coming to point 1 listed above, the storage of solar energy also depends on batteries, till now.

But here is a breakthrough announced by Charmers University, Sweden. They have developed a molecule of Carbon, Hydrogen and Nitrogen which changes shape when exposed to sunlight and therefore absorbs and stores the energy from sunlight. This compound can be stored in a liquid and so, energy can be stored and used even up to 18 years later! The new technology is based on the solar energy system MOST – Molecular Solar Thermal Energy Storage Systems.

Image credit: Charmers University, Sweden

To use this energy, a microchip has been developed to initiate a catalytic action to change the shape of the molecule back, thereby releasing the stored energy. This released energy can then be used as heat or as electricity by conversion using a thermoelectric Peltier generator. There is no pollution in this energy storage and release process making it an excellent breakthrough.

The Swedish researchers sent their specially designed molecule, loaded with solar energy, to colleagues at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where the energy was released and converted into electricity using the tiny generator they developed there. Essentially, Swedish sunshine was sent to the other side of the world and converted into electricity in China!

“The generator is an ultra-thin chip that could be integrated into electronics such as headphones, smart watches, and telephones. So far, we have only generated small amounts of electricity, but the new results show that the concept really works. It looks very promising,” says researcher Zhihang Wang from Chalmers University of Technology.

Of course, the challenge now remains how to scale up this invention for larger and more energy requiring applications. But the future seems promising!

That’s all in this newsletter; more next week.

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Arun Bhatia

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