The key challenge in solar thermal technology is to identify cost-effective methods to convert sunlight into storable, dispatchable thermal energy. Reactors heated by focused, concentrated sunlight in thermal towers reach temperatures exceeding 3,000°C, enabling the efficient chemical production of fuels from raw materials without expensive catalysts. New materials that withstand the high temperatures of solar thermal reactors are needed to drive applications of this technology. New chemical conversion sequences, like those that split water to produce H2 using the heat from nuclear fission reactors, could be used to convert focused solar thermal energy into chemical fuel with unprecedented efficiency and cost effectiveness.
At lower solar concentration temperatures, solar heat can be used to drive turbines that produce electricity mechanically with greater efficiency than the current generation of solar photovoltaics. When combined with solardriven chemical storage/release cycles, such as those based on the dissociation and synthesis of ammonia, solar engines can produce electricity continuously 24 h/day. Novel thermal storage materials with an embedded phase transition offer the potential of high thermal storage capacity and long release times, bridging the diurnal cycle.
Nanostructured thermoelectric materials, in the form of nanowires or quantum dot arrays, offer a promise of direct electricity production from temperature differentials with efficiencies of 20–30% over a temperature differential of a few hundred degrees Celsius. The much larger differentials in solar thermal reactors make even higher efficiencies possible. New low-cost, high-performance reflective materials for the focusing systems are needed to optimize the cost effectiveness of all concentrated solar thermal technologies.