Probably the most efficient way to convert solar energy into electricity is the old fashioned way, heating water into steam and turning a turbine. This remains a messy affair though and you don’t really want a steam boiler on your roof, so solar cells are popular. However, there’s some new research showing how a molecule can absorb solar energy, store it, and then release the heat on demand years later. This could offer new ways to collect and even transport solar power. This new molecule, derived from azobenzene, holds immense promise to change the way we work with solar power.
The idea behind the system is that a parent molecule is isomerized by solar irradiation. The resulting photoisomer is stable for a long period. Adding a catalyst or heat will cause the photoisomer to revert back to the parent molecule, releasing energy in the process.
We will admit, we aren’t chemists so some of the paper was a bit over our heads. But the basic idea is appealing, and this sounds like a field where a garage chemist might be able to contribute. Perhaps one day the desert will be producing photoisomers in the same way it currently produces petroleum.
We always thought the future of fuel might be biofuels, but maybe it will be solar, instead. Maybe the future solar car won’t look like this, after all.