Sun in a box: Now solar energy can be stored to be reused later

Solar and wind energy can now be stored and used later, unlike previously where they could be used only when it was sunny or windy,

Research scientists at MIT, California have designed a system based on which now renewable energy, like solar or wind energy could be stored for later use. This was not possible until now. Previously, solar or wind energy could only be used when the weather was sunny or windy

The system described in the journal Energy and Environmental Science is designed to easily provide power to a small city. It could be one of the most revolutionary design concepts.

The new design stores heat generated by excess electricity from solar or wind power in large tanks of white-hot molten silicon and then converts the light from the glowing metal back into electricity when it’s needed.

The researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), California, US believe that their system is way more affordable than currently available Lithium-ion batteries. The batteries, though expensive, are the only method to store renewable energy till date. They also estimate that the system would cost about half as much as pumped hydroelectric storage – the cheapest form of grid-scale energy storage to date.

“Even if we wanted to run the grid on renewables right now we couldn’t because you’d need fossil-fuelled turbines to make up for the fact that the renewable supply cannot be dispatched on demand,” said Asegun Henry, Associate Professor at MIT, to PTI.

“We are developing a new technology that, if successful, would solve this most important and critical problem in energy and climate change, namely, the storage problem,” Mr. Henry said.

The researchers were looking into ways to efficiently and economically store renewable energy. Hence this system was developed. As the cost of renewable energy falls below fossil fuels, the researchers fastened their search.

Unlike conventional solar plants that use solar panels to convert light directly into electricity, concentrated solar power requires vast fields of huge mirrors that concentrate sunlight onto a central tower, where the light is converted into heat that is eventually turned into electricity.

“The reason that the technology is interesting is, once you do this process of focusing the light to get heat, you can store heat much more cheaply than you can store electricity,” says Mr. Henry.

Concentrated solar plants store solar heat in large tanks filled with molten salt, which is heated to high temperatures of about 538 degrees Celsius.

When electricity is needed, the hot salt is pumped through a heat exchanger, which transfers the salt’s heat into steam. A turbine then turns that steam into electricity.

The researchers have outlined their concept for a new renewable energy storage system, which they call TEGS-MPV, or Thermal Energy Grid Storage-Multi-Junction Photovoltaics.

Instead of using fields of mirrors and a central tower to concentrate heat, they propose converting electricity generated by any renewable source, such as sunlight or wind, into thermal energy, via a process by which an electric current passes through a heating element.

The system could be paired with existing renewable energy systems, such as solar cells, to capture excess electricity during the day and store it for later use.

The system would consist of a large, heavily insulated, a 10-meter-wide tank made from graphite and filled with liquid silicon, kept at a “cold” temperature of almost 1927 degrees Celsius.

A bank of tubes, exposed to heating elements, then connects this cold tank to a second, “hot” tank.

The energy is converted to heat in the heating elements when electricity from the town’s solar cells comes into the system.

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