Solar fuel can store the Sun’s energy for 18 years

Could be the breakthrough needed to kick solar energy to the next level
solar fuel Storing solar energy has always been a problem for the industry. (© Pedro Antonio Salaverría Calahorra - Dreamstime.com)


Solar energy. The way of the future? Or just wishful thinking?

For many people—even those who really want to believe in green energy like solar—the worries remain. What worries exactly? The concerns about solar are that it:

  • Doesn't produce energy at as high a rate—or as quickly and powerfully—as fossil fuels, so therefore ...
  • We need to build huge solar fields that take up too much space, plus...
  • It can only make energy during the daytime and during mostly cloudless days, and...
  • It is difficult and expensive to store the energy that it does produce for later use

Is this true? Some of these concerns—such as it taking up too much space and not being able to meet our demands—are up for debate. And every year, a record-breaking solar plant or innovation arrives that increases our potential to harness the Sun's power. In short, solar is already used a lot around the world. Just not anywhere near as much as other forms. So how do we change that?

Are you ready to meet a solar fuel?

Solar fuel our dreams

solar fuel thermal

A diagram show the circular way that solar thermal fuel is used to produce heat. (Chalmers University of Technology/Yen Strandqvist)

Up until now, the batteries used to store solar energy have been expensive and inefficient. But scientists from Chalmers University of Technology claimed to have made a liquid that can do the job more cheaply and effectively. It is called solar thermal fuel. So how does it work?

Within the fuel is a molecule that makes an interesting change when hit by sunlight. The atoms within the molecule are rearranged and energized to become what is known as an isomer.

(If you're a fan of scientific names—and hey, who isn't?—the original molecule is called norbornadiene and its isomer is quadricyclane.)

The key here is that this isomer can then be cooled down to room temperature with next to no energy loss. And it can just sit there for a week, or a month, or even 18 years even! When you want the energy locked inside, the fuel is run through a catalyst—a chemical reaction kickstarter—that changes the isomer back to its original form, releasing the energy locked inside. Hot stuff!

What's the catch?

For now, this solar fuel is still very much in the testing stages. Though the scientists have a system using this fuel rigged up in the university, there are many improvements that they wish to make. But its appeal is obvious.

  • It actually stores solar energy, and for well over 10 years
  • Despite the name "solar thermal fuel," it isn't burned, so there are no waste by-products
  • And once the isomer is switched back, the fuel is ready for use all over again

Scientists say that their solar fuel could be ready to buy and use in about 10 years. Sounds like it will be worth the wait!


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