El Paso is known as the Sun City for a good reason. From blistering summers, to mild winters, the desert southwest knows the sun well.
On average, we experience more sunny days than any other kind of weather. And given the amount of energy the sun puts out every hour—enough to power the entire planet Earth for one year—you’d think converting to solar power would be the best option. But with the cost of solar paneling and converting buildings to use these options, it can be very a little expensive to make the change.
Surprisingly, the biggest drawback to solar power conversion may be the batteries. They store only a limited amount of the total energy received by the sun. This means power usage needs to be closely monitored. Gauges and meters must be observed in order to insure you have enough energy to use at night and during cloudy days. We won’t even talk about the recurring cost of replacing the batteries when needed.
But a change could soon be on the horizon.
A research team in Sweden has made a potential breakthrough in the ability to store solar energy. As an alternative to batteries, the team has developed a specialized fluid called Solar Thermal Fuel. Composed of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen, the fluid can hold energy from the sun for long periods of time and expel it on demand in the form of heat. When the molecules are hit by sunlight, the bonds between atoms are rearranged. This chemical conversion traps energy within the molecules. The energy stays in the storage container even when the molecules cool down to room temperature.
When energy is needed, the molecules are passed through a catalyst. This process rearranges the chemical bonds back to what they were which releases a lot of heat. The hope is that this can be used in residential heating systems, water heaters, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and much more.
In a recent interview with NBC News, MIT engineer, Jeffrey Grossman explained, “A solar thermal fuel is like a rechargeable battery, but instead of electricity, you put sunlight in and get heat out, triggered on demand.”
The emissions-free energy system can now store energy for up to 18 years, according to nanomaterials scientist Kasper Moth-Poulsen from Chalmers University. In fact, the researchers claim their fluid are currently capable of holding 250 watt-hours of energy per kilogram. According to the NBC interview, that’s double the capacity of Tesla’s Powerwall batteries.
This has the potential to save money and cut down on pollution when it comes to the various heating needs of a home or commercial building. All that’s left is to figure out how to turn this energy into usable electricity for powering all our electronic devices.