Thermo-chemical storage of solar energy uses a molecule whose structure changes when exposed to sunlight, and can remain stable in that form indefinitely. Then, when nudged by a stimulus — a catalyst, a small temperature change, a flash of light — it can quickly snap back to its other form, releasing its stored energy in a burst of heat. 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 says, is that it simplifies the process by combining energy harvesting and storage into a single step. “You’ve got a material that both converts and stores energy,” he says. “It’s robust, it doesn’t degrade, and it’s cheap.” One limitation, however, is that while this process is useful for heating applications, to produce electricity would require another conversion step, using thermoelectric devices or producing steam to run a generator.
While the new work shows the energy-storage capability of a specific type of molecule — azobenzene-functionalized carbon nanotubes — Grossman says the way the material was designed involves “a general concept that can be applied to many new materials.” Many of these have already been synthesized by other researchers for different applications, and would simply need to have their properties fine-tuned for solar thermal storage.
The key to controlling solar thermal storage is an energy barrier separating the two stable states the molecule can adopt; the detailed understanding of that barrier was central to Grossman’s earlier research on fulvalene dirunthenium, accounting for its long-term stability. Too low a barrier, and the molecule would return too easily to its “uncharged” state, failing to store energy for long periods; if the barrier were too high, it would not be able to easily release its energy when needed. “The barrier has to be optimized,” Grossman says.