A “radical” new scientific breakthrough in solar energy storage means that solar-powered electronics are one step closer to becoming a part of our everyday lives.
In 2017, a group of scientists at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden created an energy system that makes it possible to capture and store solar energy for up to 18 years, releasing it as heat when needed.
The system is known as ‘MOST’, or Molecular Solar Thermal Energy Storage Systems. It is based on a specially-designed molecule of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen that changes shape when it comes into contact with sunlight.
Now, the researchers have succeeded in getting it to produce electricity by connecting it to a thermoelectric generator.
“This is a radically new way of generating electricity from solar energy. It means that we can use solar energy to produce electricity regardless of weather, time of day, season, or geographical location,” explains research leader Kasper Moth-Poulsen, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Chalmers.
“I’m very excited about this work,” he adds. “We hope with future development this will be an important part in the future energy system.”
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Though still in its early stages, the concept could pave the way for self-charging electronics that use stored solar energy on demand.
This was detailed in their newest study published in Cell Reports Physical Science. The Swedish researchers sent their unique molecule, loaded with solar energy, to colleagues at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. There, the energy was released and converted into electricity using the generator they had developed.
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, smartwatches and telephones,” says researcher Zhihang Wang from Chalmers University of Technology.
“So far, we have only generated small amounts of electricity, but the new results show that the concept really works. It looks very promising.”
The device could potentially replace batteries and solar cells, fine-tuning the way we use the sun’s abundant energy. However, the true beauty of this closed, circular system is that it works without causing CO2 emissions, meaning it has great potential for use with renewable energy.
While significant advances like this give cause for hope, the scientists caution a lot of research and development remains before this technology will become a part of our everyday lives.
Also, even though the system is based on simple materials, it still needs to be adapted so it is cost-effective to produce before it can be launched more widely.