Solar energy is getting more and more recognition. Technology has improved tremendously and prices have dropped. But it’s not a year-long solution yet. Why? Because storing solar energy for later use is really inefficient as of now. But that might soon change. Researchers have come up with a device that can both harvest as well as store solar energy. This might one day bring electricity to rural and underdeveloped areas.

You could think that if we just need to store energy why not just use huge batteries? Well, it’s not that simple. According to a paper published in the journal Chem, scientists are trying to improve solar cells. They have developed an integrated battery that can work in three different ways. Not only can it work like a normal solar cell, but it can also store the solar energy. Or you could just charge it and use it like any ordinary battery. This could prove to be revolutionary.

The battery is a combination of two existing technologies: solar cells that harvest light, and a flow battery. Most ordinary batteries store energy in solid materials, like various metals. Whereas flow batteries store energy in external liquid tanks. This makes them highly scalable for projects where a large number of batteries are required. For the common lithium-ion batteries scaling up is a big engineering problem. But for flow batteries, “you just make the tank bigger,” says Timothy Cook, a University at Buffalo chemist and a flow battery expert who is not involved in the study. “You really simplify how to make the battery grow in capacity,” he adds. “We’re not making flow batteries to power a cell phone, we’re thinking about buildings or industrial sites.”

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The team is the first to combine these features into a single battery. Although the research has been going on for years, we have only reached a measly 14.1 percent efficiency. The team calls this “round-trip efficiency” — as in, the efficiency from taking that energy, storing it, and discharging it. “We can probably get to 20 percent efficiency in the next few years, and I think 25 percent round-trip is not out of the question,” Jin says.

The team is also trying to work on implementing a better design that can use cheaper materials. Unfortunately, the invention is still at the proof-of-concept stage. But in future years it can have a huge impact on less-developed areas without proper power infrastructure. “There, you could have a medium-scale device like this operate by itself,” he says. “It could harvest in the daytime, provide electricity in the evening.” In many such areas, electricity can massively improve the living standards.

And Cook also notes that if the solar flow battery can be scaled, it can still be helpful in the US. The United States has a very well established infrastructure, but with such a device, “you can disconnect and have personalized energy where you’re storing and using what you need locally,” he says. And that could help us reduce our dependence on inefficient or harmful energy sources.

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