White Light, Stored Heat – MIT and Harvard University Solar Thermal Energy Research

MIT and Harvard University

Researchers from MIT and Harvard Universities in the U.S. have developed a new material for solar thermal energy applications, a collector that can serve as its own heat battery. As a result, the technology could help smooth out the production of electricity from solar power over a day and night cycle, or during cloudy weather.

According to MIT postdoctoral research associate Timothy Kucharski:

The essential idea, , involves a molecule containing a kind of spring-wound hinge. Exposing the molecule to a burst of sunlight latches the solar energy in place, like arming a mousetrap. The molecule can then be left idle until its energy is needed, at which point a simple chemical catalytic reaction springs the molecular hinge and releases the stored solar energy as heat.


If the group’s work can be developed into solar thermal technology—and they’ve submitted patents already—Kucharski says it may not resemble anything like the solar water heaters on the market today.

For instance, he says, picture a window with microfluid chambers in it that allow a liquid version of this collector/battery material to flow through it.

“If you have this as a fluid, with the minimal amount of solvent, then you can flow it from the storage tank through a window that’s exposed to the light,” Kucharski says.

As it’s flown through, it gets charged by the sun. Then it gets sent to a storage tank where it stays charged. When you need it you send it through a reactor with the immobilized catalyst in it—you spend a little bit of heat, and extract more heat from it. Then you can run that [back to the tank], and you close the loop.


Copyright belongs to IEEE Spectrum and Mark Anderson. Picture credit goes to MIT and Harvard University

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  • This has been around for a while. There are clearly issues, probably economic. What you did not mention in your article is the potential game changing nature of this technology for some major time shaving. We could capture heat in the summer and so keep our houses cooler and then store the heat until winter. It could be an entirely different kind of fuel for a Stirling or Steam car engine and we would have heat engines that produce no pollution. On a large scale it represents a way to increase the capacity factor of any solar thermal power plant. Sunlight could be captured in the heat battery in the desert and then shipped to colder climates where it could be released for building heat. In short it could be a non polluting replacement for burning fossil fuels for heat.

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