Scientists in Sweden have developed a specialized fluid, called a solar thermal fuel, that can store energy from the sun for well over a decade, but instead of electricity, it uses sunlight to get heat out
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November 30, 2018 832 10
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No matter how abundant or renewable, solar power has a thorn in its side. There is still no cheap and efficient long-term storage for the energy that it generates. The solar industry has been snagged on this branch for a while, but in the past year alone, a series of four papers has ushered in an intriguing new solution. Scientists in Sweden have developed a specialized fluid, called a solar thermal fuel, that can store energy from the sun for well over a decade.

A solar thermal fuel is like a rechargeable battery, but instead of electricity, you put sunlight in and get heat out, triggered on demand," Jeffrey Grossman, an engineer works with these materials at MIT explained to NBC News.

The fluid is actually a molecule in liquid form that scientists from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden have been working on improving for over a year. This molecule is composed of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, and when it is hit by sunlight, it does something unusual: the bonds between its atoms are rearranged and it turns into an energized new version of itself, called an isomer.

Like prey caught in a trap, energy from the sun is thus captured between the isomer's strong chemical bonds, and it stays there even when the molecule cools down to room temperature. 

Liquid fuel that can store the Sun's energy  /  image by Silke  /  source PixaBay.com  /  license CC0

The transformation releases copious amounts of heat — enough to raise the fuel's temperature by 63 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), If the fuel starts at room temperature (about 21 degrees C, or 70 degrees F), it quickly warms to around 84 degrees C (183 degrees F) — easily hot enough to heat a house or office.

When the energy is needed - say at nighttime, or during winter - the fluid is simply drawn through a catalyst that returns the molecule to its original form, releasing energy in the form of heat. The energy in this isomer can now be stored for up to 18 years," says one of the team, nanomaterials scientist Kasper Moth-Poulsen from Chalmers University.

The energy in this isomer can now be stored for up to 18 years, says one of the team, nanomaterials scientist Kasper Moth-Poulsen from Chalmers University. And when we come to extract the energy and use it, we get a warmth increase which is greater than we dared hope for.

A prototype of the energy system, placed on the roof of a university building, has put the new fluid to the test, and according to the researchers, the results have caught the attention of numerous investors.

Illustration of a solar thermal collector  /  image by Yen Strandqvist  /  source Chalmers University of Technology

​A research group from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, has made great, rapid strides towards the development of a specially designed molecule which can store solar energy for later use. These advances have been presented in four scientific articles this year, with the most recent being published in the highly ranked journal Energy & Environmental Science.

The renewable, emissions-free energy device is made up of a concave reflector with a pipe in the center, which tracks the Sun like a sort-of satellite dish. The system works in a circular manner. Pumping through transparent tubes, the fluid is heated up by the sunlight, turning the molecule norbornadiene into its heat-trapping isomer, quadricyclane. The fluid is then stored at room temperature with minimal energy loss.

When the energy is needed, the fluid is filtered through a special catalyst that converts the molecules back to their original form, warming the liquid by 63 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

The hope is that this warmth can be used for domestic heating systems, powering a building's water heater, dishwasher, clothes dryer and much more, before heading back to the roof once again.

The researchers have put the fluid through this cycle more than 125 times, picking up heat and dropping it off without significant damage to the molecule.

We have made many crucial advances recently, and today we have an emissions-free energy system which works all year around, says Moth-Poulsen.

Scientists Develop Liquid Fuel That Can Store The Sun's Energy  /  image by Jonny Lindner  /  source PixaBay.com  /  license CC0

Scientists in Sweden have developed a specialized fluid, called a solar thermal fuel, that can store energy from the sun for well over a decade.

After a series of rapid developments, the researchers claim their fluid can now hold 250 watt-hours of energy per kilogram, which is double the the energy capacity of Tesla's Powerwall batteries, according to the NBC. But there's still plenty of room for improvement. With the right manipulations, the researchers think they can get even more heat out of this system, at least 110 degrees Celsius (230 degrees Fahrenheit) more.

There is a lot left to do. We have just got the system to work. Now we need to ensure everything is optimally designed, says Moth-Poulsen

If all goes as planned, Moth-Poulsen thinks the technology could be available for commercial use within 10 years. The most recent study in the series has been published in Energy & Environmental Science.

Source and references

  1. ScienceAlert.com by Carly Cassella - Scientists Develop Liquid Fuel That Can Store The Sun's Energy For Up to 18 Years
  2. Chalmers University of Technology - Emissions-free energy system saves heat from the summer sun for winter
  3. MyNewsDesk.com - Emissions-free energy system saves heat from the summer sun for winter
  4. NBCNews.com - Scientists are trying to bottle solar energy and turn it into liquid fuel
  5. Wiley.com - Liquid Norbornadiene Photoswitches for Solar Energy Storage
  6. Wiley.com - Norbornadiene‐Based Photoswitches with Exceptional Combination of Solar Spectrum Match and Long‐Term Energy Storage
  7. RSC.org - Macroscopic heat release in a molecular solar thermal energy storage system
  8. Nature.com - Molecular solar thermal energy storage in photoswitch oligomers increases energy densities and storage times

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Last updated 13 days ago on November 30, 2018 at 5:27 PM PST

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