Converting solar energy to electricity on demand

Chalmers University of Technology

​The researchers behind an energy system that makes it possible to capture solar energy, store it for up to eighteen years and release it when and where it is needed have now taken the system a step further. After previously demonstrating how the energy can be extracted as heat, they have now succeeded in getting the system to produce electricity, by connecting it to a thermoelectric generator. Eventually, the research – developed at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden – could lead to self-charging electronics using stored solar energy on demand.​

portait Kasper Moth-Poulsen “This is a radically new way of generating electricity from solar energy. It means that we can use solar energy to produce electricity regardless of weather, time of day, season, or geographical location. It is a closed system that can operate without causing carbon dioxide emissions,” says research leader Kasper Moth-Poulsen, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Chalmers.
The new technology is based on the solar energy system MOST – Molecular Solar Thermal Energy Storage Systems, developed at Chalmers University of Technology. Very simply, the technology is based on a specially designed molecule that changes shape when it comes into contact with sunlight. The research has already attracted great interest worldwide when it has been presented at earlier stages.
The new study, published in Cell Reports Physical Science and carried out in collaboration with researchers in Shanghai, takes the solar energy system a step further, detailing how it can be combined with a compact thermoelectric generator to convert solar energy into electricity.

Ultra-thin chip converts heat into electricity

The Swedish researchers sent their specially designed molecule, loaded with solar energy, to colleagues Tao Li

and Zhiyu Hu at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where the energy was released and converted into electricity
portrait Zhihang Wang

using the generator they developed there. Essentially, Swedish sunshine was sent to the other side of the world and converted into electricity in China.

“The generator is an ultra-thin chip that could be integrated into electronics such as headphones, smart watches and telephones. So far, we have only generated small amounts of electricity, but the new results show that the concept really works. It looks very promising,” says researcher Zhihang Wang from Chalmers University of Technology.

Fossil free, emissions free

The research has great potential for renewable and emissions-free energy production. But a lot of research and development remains before we will be able to charge our technical gadgets or heat our homes with the system’s stored solar energy.
“Together with the various research groups included in the project, we are now working to streamline the system. The amount of electricity or heat it can extract needs to be increased. Even if the energy system is based on simple basic materials, it needs to be adapted to be sufficiently cost-effective to produce, and thus possible to launch more broadly,” says Kasper Moth-Poulsen.

More about the Most technology

Image from the MostlabbMolecular Solar Thermal Energy Storage Systems, Most, is a closed energy system based on a specially designed molecule of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, which when hit by sunlight changes shape into an energy-rich isomer – a molecule made up of the same atoms but arranged together in a different way. The isomer can then be stored in liquid form for later use when needed, such as at night or in winter. The researchers have refined the system to the point that it is now possible to store the energy for up to 18 years. A specially designed catalyst releases the saved energy as heat while returning the molecule to its original shape, so it can then be reused in the heating system. Now, in combination with an micrometer-thin thermoelectric generator, the energy system can also generate electricity to order.
Photo above to the right: Maria Quant and Zhihang Wang, postdocs in the Most reserach group, in the front a modell of the specially designed molecule ​

More about the research and the scientific article

  • ​The study Chip-scale solar thermal electrical power generation is published in Cell Reports Physical Science. The article is written by Zhihang Wang, Zhenhua Wu, Zhiyu Hu, Jessica Orrego-Hernández, Erzhen Mu, Zhao-Yang Zhang, Martyn Jevric, Yang Liu, Xuecheng Fu, Fengdan Wang, Tao Li and Kasper Moth-Poulsen. The researchers are active at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Henan Polytechnic University in China, as well as at the Institute of Materials Science in Barcelona and the Catalan Department of Research and Advanced Studies, ICREA, in Spain.
  • The research has been funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, the Swedish Research Council Formas, the Swedish Energy Agency, the European Research Council (ERC) under grant agreement CoG, PHOTHERM – 101002131, the Catalan Institute of Advanced Studies (ICREA), and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme under grant agreement no. 951801.

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