Battery technology aims to store the sun

The solar-charged battery, developed at UW-Madison, stores the sun's energy.

Image By: David Tenenbaum

Every day, the Earth is bombarded by energy from a source more powerful than humanity could ever replicate: the sun. But this power is not so kind as to be easily harnessed. Even with the wealth of solar technology available and in development, problems persist.

Sunlight is a fickle resource, unable to be collected at night or when the weather is cloudy. Because of this inconsistency in production, solar energy’s main sticking point is storage.

If solar power can be stored efficiently when the sun is shining, it can be dispersed at any given time. Song Jin, a professor in the chemistry department at UW-Madison, is looking into this area.

Jin and his team are currently developing a battery with the capacity to change the game of solar storage. Two key components make the design unique. First, the battery is charged directly by the solar energy collected, rather than there being intermittent steps in the process as there are with traditional designs.

“We have one integrated device — it’s simpler,” Wenji Li, a graduate student working closely on the project, explained.

In comparison to current battery solutions, which are made of metallic compounds that are more expensive, the project’s design also uses a cheaper liquid electrolyte, its second unique aspect.

According to Li, the current experiments are being run with solar cells that are approximately 7cm long and have a volume of 20 mL of electrolyte — very small scale in comparison to the end goal of the project.

“This system is good for large scale, we can enlarge the tanks [of electrolyte] easily,” Li said. Currently, the electrolyte is too heavy to be implemented in cell phones or personal technology. Jin and his team are trying to change this.

Although the project is currently in small-scale research, it could potentially have a very big impact on the way solar power can be utilized.

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