New way store sun’s heat

New way to store sun’s heat

12:09 PM, 15th July 2011
New way to store sun’s heat

CAMBRIDGE, US: A novel application of carbon nanotubes, developed by MIT researchers, shows promise as an innovative approach to storing solar energy for use whenever it’s needed.

Storing the sun’s heat in chemical form - rather than converting it to electricity or storing the heat itself in a heavily insulated container - has significant advantages, since in principle the chemical material can be stored for long periods of time. The problem with that approach has been that until now the chemicals needed to perform this conversion and storage either degraded within a few cycles, or included the element ruthenium, which is rare and expensive.

Last year, MIT, Associate Professor, Jeffrey Grossman and four co-authors figured out exactly how fulvalene diruthenium - known to scientists as the best chemical for reversibly storing solar energy, since it did not degrade - was able to accomplish this feat. Grossman said at the time that better understanding this process could make it easier to search for other compounds, made of abundant and inexpensive materials, which could be used in the same way.

Now, he and Postdoc Alexie Kolpak have succeeded in doing just that. A paper describing their new findings has just been published online in the journal Nano Letters and will appear in print in a forthcoming issue.

The new material found by Grossman and Kolpak is made using carbon nanotubes, tiny tubular structures of pure carbon, in combination with a compound called azobenzene. The resulting molecules, produced using nanoscale templates to shape and constrain their physical structure, gain “New properties that aren’t available” in the separate materials, said Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg Associate Professor of Power Engineering.

Not only is this new chemical system less expensive, but it also is vastly more efficient at storing energy in a given amount of space, Kolpak said. Grossman describes it as creating a rechargeable heat battery with a long shelf life, like a conventional battery.

One of the great advantages of the new approach to harnessing solar energy, Grossman said, is that it simplifies the process by combining energy harvesting and storage into a single step. While the new work shows the energy-storage capability of a specific type of molecule - azobenzene-functionalized carbon nanotubes - Grossman said the way the material was designed involves “A general concept that can be applied to many new materials.”

Already, the team is “Very actively looking at a range of new materials,” he said. While they have already identified the one very promising material described in this paper, he said, “I see this as the tip of the iceberg. We’re pretty jazzed up about it.”

© Massachusetts Institute of Technology News Office 




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