How To Store Solar Energy In A Non-Electric Battery

Materials chemists have been trying for years to make a new type of battery that can store solar or other light-sourced energy in chemical bonds rather than electrons, one that will release the energy on demand as heat instead of electricity–addressing the need for long-term, stable, efficient storage of solar power.

Now a group of materials chemists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst led by Dhandapani Venkataraman, with Ph.D. student and first author Seung Pyo Jeong, Ph.D. students Larry Renna, Connor Boyle and others, report that they have solved one of the major hurdles in the field by developing a polymer-based system. It can yield energy storage density – the amount of energy stored – more than two times higher than previous polymer systems. Details appear in the current issue of Scientific Reports.

Venkataraman and Boyle say that previous high energy storage density achieved in a polymeric system was in the range of 200 Joules per gram, while their new system is able to reach an average of 510 Joules per gram, with a maximum of 690. Venkataraman says, “Theory says that we should be able to achieve 800 Joules per gram, but nobody could do it. This paper reports that we’ve reached one of the highest energy densities stored per gram in a polymeric system, and how we did it.”


Battery That Could Be Recharged 200,000 Times

Scientists have long sought to use nanowires in batteries. Thousands of times thinner than a human hair, they’re highly conductive and feature a large surface area for the storage and transfer of electrons. However, these filaments are extremely fragile and don’t hold up well to repeated discharging and recharging, or cycling. In a typical lithium-ion battery, they expand and grow brittle, which leads to cracking.

Researchers fron the University of California Irvine (UCI) have solved this problem by coating a gold nanowire in a manganese dioxide shell and encasing the assembly in an electrolyte made of a Plexiglas-like gel. The combination is reliable and resistant to failure.

Mya Le Thai

The study leader, UCI doctoral candidate Mya Le Thai, cycled the testing electrode up to 200,000 times over three months without detecting any loss of capacity or power and without fracturing any nanowires. The findings were published today in the American Chemical Society’s Energy Letters. Hard work combined with serendipity paid off in this case, according to senior author Reginald Penner.

Mya was playing around, and she coated this whole thing with a very thin gel layer and started to cycle it,” said Penner, chair of UCI’s chemistry department. “She discovered that just by using this gel, she could cycle it hundreds of thousands of times without losing any capacity”.

That was crazy,” he added, “because these things typically die in dramatic fashion after 5,000 or 6,000 or 7,000 cycles at most.


How To Manipulate Light

Electrons are so 20th century. In the 21st century, photonic devices, which use light to transport large amounts of information quickly, will enhance or even replace the electronic devices that are ubiquitous in our lives today. But there’s a step needed before optical connections can be integrated into telecommunications systems and computers: researchers need to make it easier to manipulate light at the nanoscale.

Researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have done just that, designing the first on-chip metamaterial with a refractive index of zero, meaning that the phase of light can travel infinitely fast.

This new metamaterial was developed in the lab of Eric Mazur, the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Area Dean for Applied Physics at SEAS, and is described in the journal Nature Photonics.

manipulated light

New zero-index material made of silicon pillar arrays embedded in a polymer matrix and clad in gold film creates a constant phase of light, which stretches out in infinitely long wavelengths

Light doesn’t typically like to be squeezed or manipulated but this metamaterial permits you to manipulate light from one chip to another, to squeeze, bend, twist and reduce diameter of a beam from the macroscale to the nanoscale,” said Mazur. “It’s a remarkable new way to manipulate light.”

Although this infinitely high velocity sounds like it breaks the rule of relativity, it doesn’t. Nothing in the universe travels faster than light carrying information — Einstein is still right about that. But light has another speed, measured by how fast the crests of a wavelength move, known as phase velocity. This speed of light increases or decreases depending on the material it’s moving through.

When light passes through water, for example, its phase velocity is reduced as its wavelengths get squished together. Once it exits the water, its phase velocity increases again as its wavelength elongates. How much the crests of a light wave slow down in a material is expressed as a ratio called the refraction index — the higher the index, the more the material interferes with the propagation of the wave crests of light. Water, for example, has a refraction index of about 1.3.

When the refraction index is reduced to zero, really weird and interesting things start to happen.