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Research discovers new way to store solar power

22nd Jul 2011

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a new way to store solar energy in a process that makes its use more flexible for consumers.

A team of researchers has used carbon nanotubes to store the energy for an indefinite amount of time.

The method promises to keep solar energy 'on tap,' ready to be used when it is needed year round, an approach made possible by storing the heat from the sun in chemical form.

Instead of converting it directly into electricity, or keeping it confined within an insulated container as pure heat, chemical storage affords some unique advantages.

Once trapped within the carbon nanotubes, the energy does not deplete, meaning long term storage is now possible.

Previously this method was deemed impractical due to inefficient chemical components that needed constant renewal and the expense of materials, such as the element ruthenium.

The breakthrough came last year when MIT researchers discovered more suitable materials that could be used in the process without the high cost.

Carbon nanotubes are small, cylindrical pieces of a carbon compound.

The key is to structure the molecules in a way that vastly increases the available storage space.

MIT postdoc Alexie Kolpak says that the potential energy capacity is on par with that of a lithium-ion battery.

A great deal of the interest in thermo-chemical storage comes from the potential to harness energy in addition to storing it in a single process.

Associate professor Jeffrey Grossman says, "You’ve got a material that both converts and stores energy. It’s robust, it doesn’t degrade, and it’s cheap."

For electricity and heating applications, there still remains the need to convert the energy, similar to the way in which solar panels make the energy ready to be used in power systems.

The team is said to be continuing research in the field by exploring the possibilities afforded by applying the process to new materials.

Affordability and efficiency are two critical issues facing renewable energy technologies.

Global research and development efforts both within the academic community and in the private sector are necessary to make clean energy technology accessible to the world at large.

This is particularly a concern in many developing nations where solar energy infrastructure is currently lacking.

Solar technology development is seeing a dramatic upswing as more and more governments move towards sustainable clean energy on an unprecedented scale.

Australians can expect solar energy to increase in efficiency and popularity as more advanced technology arrives on our shores, in addition to the advancements being made at home.

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