Scientists are Trying to Bottle Solar Energy and Turn it into Liquid Fuel

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One of the most significant challenges hindering solar energy use in Indonesia is the lack of efficient storage systems. The Asian country has a high potential for solar energy generation. The government has set a renewable energy target of 23% to reach by 2025 and 31% by 2050. At the moment, however, only13% of power generation nationwide comes from renewable energy.

This situation could however change soon. For a long time, scientists have tried to find a more efficient way to store solar energy. For instance, a project for a solar air conditioner in Indonesia can still generate more energy but storing this extra energy is a big problem.

Recently,  scientists at a Swedish university devised a way to bottle solar energy. The innovation to bottle solar energy has excited the renewable energy industry across the globe.  It would be the perfect solution to countries like Indonesia, with high potential for solar energy which remains untapped.

The Science behind Bottling Solar Energy 

The idea of preserving solar energy has been around for a long time. However, it wasn’t until 2019 when a team from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden finally figured out how this could work.

The team of scientists first developed liquid fuel containing the compound norbornadiene. When sunlight passes through this liquid, it rearranges its carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen atoms into an energy-storing isomer, quadricyclane.

This is where the magic happens because Quadricyclane holds onto the energy (about 250 watt-hours of energy per kilogram) even after cooling over long durations (months or years). Even when it cools down, the quadricyclane retains the captured solar power trapped in strong chemical bonds.

When one needs to use the stored energy, the material flows through a cobalt-based catalyst. The energy is released as thermal energy for your water heater, dishwasher or your clothes dryer. There’s potential for application of this thermal energy in cooking, sterilization, bleaching, distillation and other industrial operations.

In scientific terms, this project has developed a solar thermal fuel. This storage solution might look like a rechargeable battery, but the difference comes in the form of energy released on demand.  After putting in sunlight, you get heat out only on demand.

Compared to other fuels such as coal and natural gas, solar thermal fuel doesn’t release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It is reusable and environmentally friendly. This breakthrough also makes solar energy transportable which makes it more efficient to use in real-world energy applications.

While the announcement has elicited a lot of hype in the conservation circles, the team has continued refining its technology to make this fuel more applicable. The idea is to make this fuel reusable over and over again.

To do this, the scientists have continued to adjust the molecular makeup of their fuel. This prevents it from breaking down due to storage and multiple release cycles.The Molecular Solar Thermal Energy Storage (MOST) round-trip energy system is what the scientists have conceptualized as a solution. The system has the liquid running through a concave solar thermal collector with a pipe passing across its centre.

The transformation of norbornadiene into quadricyclane occurs after the collector focuses sunlight on the pipe and the fuel running through it. This charged fuel is now ready for storage, use or shipping for use in other applications. The innovators have said the energy in this isomer is storable for up to 18 years.

When a user needs to use the fuel’s energy, the system passes it through the catalyst. A chemical reaction converts the fuel back into liquid with temperature boosted by 145°F. One of the most notable features of this innovation is the fact that solar thermal fuel is easy to store. It can also be piped or trucked between solar farms and cities.

To appreciate how much energy this solar thermal fuel stores, (up to 250 watt-hours of energy per kilogram), consider that this is twice the energy capacity of a Tesla Powerwall battery. This is one of the popular solar energy storage solutions on the market.

What’s the Impact of Solar Thermal Fuel in Indonesia?

With so much sunlight throughout the year, many households, commercial and industrial facilities are already using solar power systems. The weather is hot and humid and solar air conditioning is a major way to save money.

With air conditioning required throughout the year, a solar air conditioner in Indonesia, for instance, saves users thousands of dollars every year. It also benefits the environment by reducing the burning of fossil fuels in homes and commercial facilities.

With solar thermal fuel, more people across the country would leverage the myriad benefits of solar energy. Solar farms would distribute power to areas without enough sunshine and reduce dependency on fossil fuels for cooking and heating. 

Wrapping Up

Bottling of solar energy is an idea in its inception stages but it could be one of the biggest breakthroughs in the renewable energy industry. It would make it possible for a homeowner in Indonesia to generate solar energy to power their solar air-con and store excess energy for future use during the cold season.

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