“In many areas, having electricity is a game changer.”
Using solar panels to produce energy not only make sense for a future clean environment but is becoming cost efficient as prices drop.
Solar energy is now widely used around the world, especially in countries which get a lot of sunlight each day. But in countries where sunlight is said to be ‘scarce’, like in the UK, solar energy is fast gaining ground as well as solar PVs (photovoltaic cells) don’t really need direct sunlight to work – they can still absorb energy from the sun even if the day is cloudy,
Solar energy is being encouraged by government with a ‘feed-in’ tariff system. The government can pay you for the energy your system creates through its Feed-in Tariff programme or scheme. Alternatively, you can sell the electricity generated by your system back to the grid.
There are other obvious benefits. Solar energy is renewable and sustainable and the most obvious benefit is that you can reduce your expenses when it comes to your electric bills
The main drawback is solar energy is not free from the grid. This is because solar panels don’t store energy for later use.
Now, researchers have refined a device that can both harvest and store solar energy, and they hope it will one day bring electricity to rural and underdeveloped areas.
Researchers and scientists have been working towards a solution to the energy storage condundrum for some time and this had led to many creative solutions, such as giant batteries.
According to a paper published recently in the journal ‘Chem,’ scientists trying to improve the solar cells themselves, developed an integrated battery that works in three different ways. It can work like a normal solar cell by converting sunlight to electricity immediately or it can simply be charged like a normal battery explained study author Song Jin, a chemist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
It’s a combination of two existing technologies: solar cells that harvest light, and a so-called flow battery. The most commonly used batteries, lithium-ion, store energy in solid materials, like various metals. Flow batteries, on the other hand, store energy in external liquid tanks. This means they are very easy to scale for large projects. Scaling up all the components of a lithium-ion battery might throw off the engineering, but for flow batteries, “you just make the tank bigger,” says Timothy Cook, a University of Buffalo chemist and flow battery expert 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.
Jin and his team were the first to combine the two features. They have been working on the battery for years, and have now reached 14.1 percent efficiency. Jin 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.
They want to develop a better design that can use cheaper materials whilst also improving efficiency.
The invention is still at proof-of-concept stage, but he thinks it could have a large impact in less-developed areas without power grids and proper infrastructure.
“There, you could have a medium-scale device like this operate by itself. It could harvest in the daytime, provide electricity in the evening.”
“In many areas, having electricity is a game changer, because it can help people be more connected or enable more clinics to be open and therefore improve health care.”
And Cook notes that if the solar flow battery can be scaled, it can still be helpful in the US. The United States might have plenty of power 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 be less dependent on forms of energy that harm the environment.