Diagram of molecules going through solar-induced charge-discharge cycle, with heat released.

The working cycle of a solar thermal fuel, using azobenzene as an example. (Courtesy of Jeff Grossman.)

A molecular approach to solar power
Switchable material could harness the power of the sun — even when it’s not shining.

David L. Chandler | MIT News Office
April 13, 2014

It’s an obvious truism, but one that may soon be outdated: The problem with solar power is that sometimes the sun doesn’t shine.

Now a team at MIT and Harvard University has come up with an ingenious workaround — a material that can absorb the sun’s heat and store that energy in chemical form, ready to be released again on demand.

This solution is no solar-energy panacea: While it could produce electricity, it would be inefficient at doing so. But for applications where heat is the desired output — whether for heating buildings, cooking, or powering heat-based industrial processes — this could provide an opportunity for the expansion of solar power into new realms.

“It could change the game, since it makes the sun’s energy, in the form of heat, storable and distributable,” says Jeffrey Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT, who is a co-author of a paper describing the new process in the journal Nature Chemistry. Timothy Kucharski, a postdoc at MIT and Harvard, is the paper’s lead author.

The principle is simple: Some molecules, known as photoswitches, can assume either of two different shapes, as if they had a hinge in the middle. Exposing them to sunlight causes them to absorb energy and jump from one configuration to the other, which is then stable for long periods of time.

But these photoswitches can be triggered to return to the other configuration by applying a small jolt of heat, light, or electricity — and when they relax, they give off heat. In effect, they behave as rechargeable thermal batteries: taking in energy from the sun, storing it indefinitely, and then releasing it on demand.

Read more…

See Prof. Grossman teach about this new class of solar materials, in this lecture video from his OCW course 3.021J Introduction to Modeling and Simulation: