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Material Offers Solar Energy ‘On Demand’

Thursday, April 17, 2014

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MIT and Harvard researchers have developed a switchable material that can absorb the sun’s heat and store that energy in chemical form, ready to be released again “on demand.”

The technology could be used for heating buildings, cooking or powering heat-based industrial processes, the team reported Sunday (April 13) in a research announcement.

molecular solar technology
Images: MIT / Courtesy of the researchers

The team used a powerful arc lamp to simulate sunlight on a sample of photoswitchable molecules, driving structural changes at the molecular level.

The development could be an energy “game changer” since it makes the sun’s energy, in the form of heat, both storable and distributable, according to Jeffrey Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT.

Grossman is a co-author of a paper describing the new process in the journal Nature Chemistry. Timothy Kucharski, a postdoc at MIT and Harvard, is the paper’s lead author.

A 'Simple' Principle

“The principle is simple,” the team explains. “Some molecules, known as photoswitches, can assume either of two different shapes, as if they had a hinge in the middle.

“Exposing them to sunlight causes them to absorb energy and jump from one configuration to the other, which is then stable for long periods of time.

MIT illustration

The working cycle of a solar thermal fuel is depicted in this illustration. After being exposed to the sun, the molecules rearrange and behave like rechargeable thermal batteries, the scientists report.

“But these photoswitches can be triggered to return to the other configuration by applying a small jolt of heat, light, or electricity—and when they relax, they give off heat. In effect, they behave as rechargeable thermal batteries: taking in energy from the sun, storing it indefinitely, and then releasing it on demand.”

The team used azobenzene molecules and carbon nanotubes to make the technology work.

Potential Uses

Grossman says there are numerous applications where heat, not electricity, is the desired outcome of solar power.

For example, in many parts of the world, the primary cooking fuel is wood or dung, which produce unhealthy indoor air pollution and can contribute to deforestation, he said.

“Since people often cook while the sun isn’t out, being able to store heat for later use could be a big benefit,” Grossman said.


“It could change the game, since it makes the sun’s energy, in the form of heat, storable and distributable,” says Dr. Jeffrey Grossman of MIT.

Unlike fuels that are burned, the technology uses material that can be continually reused. It produces no emissions, and nothing gets consumed, Grossman noted.

Commercialization in the Works

The team is exploring materials and manufacturing methods, but reports that it is “a big step closer” to developing a commercial system.

The team also included MIT research scientist Nicola Ferralis; assistant professor of mechanical engineering Alexie Kolpak; undergraduate Jennie Zheng; and Harvard professor Daniel Nocera.

The work was supported by BP through the MIT Energy Initiative and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).


Tagged categories: Building science; Research; Solar; Solar energy

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