While we’ve figured out ways to capture light and heat from the sun, solar technology is still far from perfected. Photovoltaic cells and solar-thermal systems are a good start, but researchers at MIT are working on a whole new way to not only capture energy from the sun, but to store it indefinitely. Called thermo-chemical solar energy, this new process uses a molecular structure reconfiguration to capture energy from the sun, potentially storing it forever.

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Talk about killing two birds with one stone – MIT’s new research stands to collect energy from the sun while efficiently storing it for future use. The idea for chemically storing the sun’s energy first came up in 1970’s, however they couldn’t figure out which chemical to use. It wasn’t until 1996 that the perfect chemical – fulvalene diruthenium – came along, however it contains the rare element ruthenium, which is prohibitively expensive.

The team at MIT has managed to isolate and map out the molecular restructuring process that fulvalene diruthenium undergoes when absorbing heat from the sun. Now that they know its trick, they have set out on a chemical tour to try to find another chemical capable of the same action. The process they are looking for is two-step – first the molecule transforms from its resting state into a semi-stable state, and then secondly, into a totally stable “rechargeable heat battery.” The chemicals are believed to be able to absorb heat from any source, so if MIT finds their missing link this could be a huge breakthrough in energy storage.