MIT Breakthrough: Thermo-Chemical Solar Power
MIT researchers are hopeful of capturing and releasing solar energy with the help of thermo-chemical technology. Scientists were already working on this technology in seventies but this project was aborted due to its expensiveness and termed as too impractical to achieve. But MIT researchers are now gearing up to take this thermo-chemical technology that is supposed to convert solar energy into electrical energy.
Currently we depend on the photovoltaic cells that transform light energy into electricity. Thermo-chemical technology is a bit different. It traps the solar energy and stores it in the form of heat in molecules of chemicals. This heat energy can be converted and utilized by humans whenever the need arises. What happens in a conventional solar system is that heat gets leached away over time but when, heat is stored using the thermo-chemical fuel it remains stable.
Jeffrey Grossman is the associate Professor of Power Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. According to him this chemical-electrical process makes it possible to produce a “rechargeable heat battery” that can repeatedly store and release heat gathered from sunlight or other sources. In principle, Grossman said, when fuel made from fulvalene diruthenium is stored, heat is released, and it “can get as hot as 200 degrees C, plenty hot enough to heat your home, or even to run an engine to produce electricity.”
One of the major drawbacks of this project is they were depending on a chemical, ruthenium. This is a rare element and the cost is effectively is out of question. But the MIT team is still hopeful and they are saying that they have found out the exact working mechanism of ruthenium and soon they will find out another chemical element that will not be expensive and will be available easily in nature.
Jeffrey Grossman explains that fulvalene diruthenium shows the potential to replace ruthenium. Fulvalene diruthenium can absorb solar energy. After trapping solar energy it can achieve a higher-energy state where it can remain stable ad infinitum. If a stimulus can be given in the form of heat or a catalyst, it reverts to its unique shape, releasing heat in the process.
Professor Grossman states, “It takes many of the advantages of solar-thermal energy, but stores the heat in the form of a fuel. It’s reversible, and it’s stable over a long term. You can use it where you want, on demand. You could put the fuel in the sun, charge it up, then use the heat, and place the same fuel back in the sun to recharge.”
But the path to clean and green energy is not so easy. The MIT team has to tackle the challenges lying ahead. First they have to find out an easy way to synthesize the material in the laboratory that can absorb and trap heat inside it and secondly they have to search for a good catalyst that can release the trapped heat energy without much fuss.