NASA may have figured out the perfect energy source for colonies on other planets, but here on Earth, we’re still struggling to find the right balance of power, renewability, and cost. Though scientists have made great strides in making solar power more efficient, one of its innate problems is (surprise!) powering things when the Sun isn’t shining. Now, a research team from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden may have a solution: liquid solar thermal fuel.
The team, led by Kasper Moth-Poulsen, has created a liquid solution based on the chemical norbornadiene, which is run through transparent tubes to expose it to sunlight. Upon being exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, the norbornadiene transforms into quadricyclane, which stores much of the thermal energy from the sunlight in its chemical bonds. Upon being exposed to a cobalt-based catalyst, the quadricyclane can be transformed back into norbornadiene, a process that releases all the stored thermal energy and raises the temperature of the liquid. Right now, Moth-Poulsen has managed to increase the temperature of the fuel by 113 degrees Fahrenheit, which opens up the possibility of using it for heating a room or drying clothes.
According to Jeffrey Grossman, a scientist from MIT: “A solar thermal fuel is like a rechargeable battery, but instead of electricity, you put sunlight in and get heat out, triggered on demand.” Previous fuels of this type weren’t very good at holding onto energy, raising their temperature to significant levels, or being re-used again and again. Poulsen’s fuel has demonstrated that all three are possible, though it will take some time to create a solar thermal fuel that’s practical enough for commercial use. One of the major hurdles is that the current recipe only manages to absorb about 5% of the solar energy provided by the Sun. That hasn’t stopped multiple companies from calling him, however—as it stands, Poulsen’s solar fuel is able to be stored for years, and is currently more efficient than Tesla’s Powerwall batteries when it comes to energy density.
It’s an exciting new discovery, and one that may signal a new era of solar energy.
The days of us relying on solar power and rocket fuel for colonizing Mars are numbered. NASA has found a better way.
With plans being made to colonize Mars, NASA has decided that it’s time for nuclear power to take center stage.
In a recent announcement, NASA unveiled the Kilopower project, which will potentially provide power for settlements and exploration on the surface of the Red Planet.
Kilopower is essentially a miniature nuclear reactor that produces just enough electrical power to carry out essential tasks.
Kilopower has been given primacy by NASA partly because solar power is going to have a tough time fulfilling the needs of astronauts if the panels are situated on the Martian surface—day and night cycles, dust storms, and other factors mean that sunlight won’t always be around to provide the base-level of energy needed to get things done. The Kilopower system, on the other hand, can create a steady supply of power depending on the needs of the astronauts.
Despite the potential utility of Kilopower, the prospect of bringing dozens of miniature nuclear reactors to Mars is pretty concerning, even if they’re only small ones.
You can assure us that nuclear fail-safe systems are pretty much foolproof all you want, but catastrophic incidents like Fukushima still occur, and we’re betting that the conditions on Mars can be just as unpredictable as the coast of Japan.
The one thing we’d like to see from the upcoming tests in Nevada is how the Kilopower system handles a full-on systemic failure, along with conclusive proof that they will not attract sandworms.