The Solar Energy Game is Heating Up, Literally

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Around the world, humans are seeking out new ways to power their lives. From turning on the light to turning on their cars, solar energy is in vogue.

Skeptics ask, what about on cloudy days, or at night? Well, new technology is being developed that could change the way we harness the power of the sun, and even heat itself.

Holding the Sun 15 The Solar Energy Game is Heating Up, Literally

Can Humans fully harness the power of the sun? (Image:Holding the sun by Flikr user evad67)

While here in the US most solar consumers are concerned with lowering their electric bill and charging their plug in car, other parts of the world are looking to harness solar power for more basic needs, such as heating their homes and cooking their food. Scientists at MIT are currently developing what may be the perfect solution to sustainability in developing nations, where there is not ready access to cooking and heating fuel, or where the only option is burning animal dung for heat.

The team of chemical engineers, headed by professors Jeffrey Grossman and Timothy Kucharski, are working to create a rechargeable thermal batter that would be capable of storing heat indefinitely.

When Grossman’s team first started to theorize about ways to harness heat, they were worried that there would be no way to create sufficient energy density. The battery would be made using photoswitches. These molecules are capable of existing in two conformations. A stimulus, an electric current or the heat from the sun, causes the photoswitch to change from one form to another. Challenges in creating a functional version of the material, such as cramming enough molecules close enough to produce the necessary energy density,were a major concern. Computer models of the project did little to sway the teams concerns, but once in the lab the carbon nanotube structures used to store the heat interacted with the attached azobenzine¬†molecules in order to harness the spectra (components of light) energy.

The interaction, where the nanotubes interlace with the azobenzine molecules much like the teeth of a zipper, created a much higher energy density than the team had even hoped for. The teams break through has been published in Nature Chemistry.

“Now we’re looking at whole new classes of solar thermal materials where you can enhance this interactivity.” Grossman said

Grossman has created a video breaking down the specifics of this new breakthrough.

The material can be used to readily supply heat for cooking and for heating rooms, which could change the lives of millions living in developing nations, while preserving air quality. Best of all, the material can provide heat without any concern about running out of resources, at least for the next 4.5 billion years or so.

The system, while a huge step forward in the arena of solar energy, is still in the development stage. While perfectly capable of producing harnessed heat, the material is less efficient when it comes to converting heat energy into electricity. The MIT team is working on perfecting the material and finding ways to easily reproduce the new material to make it ready for mass distribution.

In addition, another MIT group, lead by professor Gang Chen, is using similar technology to harness heat. Their device, a thermometric converter atop a copper plate, could be placed under solar panels or under the hood of your internal combustion auto to harness energy waste and convert it into power.

With the bulk of energy consumption dissipating into heat, this seems like the next logical step in the quest for reducing fossil fuels and encouraging a more sustainable use of power. A new wave of tech companies are working to develop semiconductors that likewise convert heat into power.¬†The heat of the sun doesn’t just work for heating things up, of course. Promethean Power in India converts electricity from solar panels into thermal (heat) energy, which is then used to run refrigerators.

With the greatest scientific minds working on solutions, and the greatest power source in the solar system at our disposal, it seems that humanity may be well on its way to powering our lives with the sun.

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