Researchers at Chalmers University in Sweden have developed an entirely new way of capturing and storing energy from sunlight. The system is called the Molecular Thermal Energy Storage System or MOST. It is based on a specially designed molecule that changes shape when it is exposed to sunshine.
The molecule is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. When sunlight hits it, it changes into an energy-rich isomer – a molecule made up of the same atoms but arranged together in a different way. That isomer is stable and can be stored for many years. When a specially designed catalyst is applied, the stored energy is released in the form of heat and the molecule returns to its original form and can be reused.
The Chalmers researchers sent some of the energy-laden isomer to researchers in China who used it to operate a micron-thin thermoelectric generator, which used the heat released by the isomer material to generate electricity. The generator is an ultra-thin chip that could be integrated into electronics such as headphones, smart watches, and telephones. It is currently only at the proof-of-concept stage, but the results are quite promising. The integration with the MOST technology provides a way that solar energy can generate electricity regardless of weather, time of day, season, or geographical location. The results of the study were recently published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science.
In effect, for this demonstration, Swedish sunshine was sent to the other side of the world and converted into electricity in China. The ultimate goal of this research is to create self-charging electronics that uses stored solar energy on demand.
Converting solar energy to electricity on demand
Photo, posted March 11, 2013, courtesy of Steve Slater via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.