Scientists at University of Massachusetts Amherst have created a new unconventional material that is highly effective at storing and releasing heat energy — and it could be used as a battery. Called AzoPMA, the new plastic-like polymer is capable of holding 100 times as much thermal energy as water. If further developed, a thermal battery which stores and releases heat could revolutionize solar energy, much as powerful traditional batteries have transformed the smart phone and electric car industries.

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Research on AzoPMA was led by Dr. Dhandapani Venkataraman, a chemist at the University of Massachusetts, and recently published in the journal Nature. The material was given its name in reference to its azobenzene-based poly(methacrylate) composition. AzoPMA is able to hold so much thermal energy because it switches between two conformations, or shapes, depending on its heat. When the material is heated, molecules within take their high-energy form, which is effective at storing thermal energy. When it is cooled, they return to their low-energy form, which then releases heat energy as needed.

Related: South Australia to host world’s largest thermal solar plant

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The potential for thermal battery power is seemingly endless. “Thermal batteries today are where electrical batteries were a century ago,” MIT professor Dr. Jeffrey Grossman, who has led similar thermal battery research, told NBC News. “There are exciting applications we’re only starting to understand.” Venkatarman sees this feature as being especially useful in off-the grid locations. “Imagine when go camping, you’d be charging the molecules while you are hiking, then you’d discharge them to cook your dinner,” he said. AzoPMA could also be used as a non-burning material in solar-thermal ovens, which would reduce the risk of health damage from fumes on stoves common in rural areas, as a component of large household batteries, or spread out in small pieces to melt snow after a storm, without the need for electricity.

Via NBC News

Images via MIT and Nature