Scientists can now bottle solar energy, turn it into liquid fuel

The barrier to solar energy has always been storage. Now, bottled sunshine has a shelf-life of 18 years.

  • Researchers have invented a liquid isomer that can store and release solar energy.
  • The team has solved problems other researchers have previously encountered.
  • The discovery could lead to more widespread use of solar energy.

In the last year, a team from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, essentially figured out how to bottle solar energy. They developed a liquid fuel containing the compound norbornadiene that—when struck by sunlight—rearranges its carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen atoms into an energy-storing isomer, quadricyclane. Quadricyclane holds onto the energy, estimated to be up to 250 watt-hours of energy per kilogram, even after it cools and for an extended period of time. For use, it's passed through a cobalt-based catalyst, at which point the energy is released as heat. The team's research could be a breakthrough in making solar energy transportable and thus even more usable for meeting real-world energy needs.

What's more, the team has been adjusting the molecular makeup of their fuel so that it doesn't break down as a result of storage and release cycles. It can be used over and over again. "We've run it though 125 cycles without any significant degradation," according to researcher Kasper Moth-Poulsen.

As a result, the scientists envision a round-trip energy system they call MOST, which stands for Molecular Solar Thermal Energy Storage.

The MOST system

(Chalmers University of Technology)

In the MOST system, the liquid runs through a concave solar thermal collector that has a pipe running across its center. The collector focuses sunlight on that pipe, and the fuel running through it, causing the transformation of norbornadiene into quadricyclane. The charged fuel then flows through transparent tubing into storage tanks, or it can be diverted and shipped elsewhere for use. Says Moth-Poulsen in the Chalmers press release, "The energy in this isomer can now be stored for up to 18 years. And when we come to extract the energy and use it, we get a warmth increase which is greater than we dared hope for."

To release the fuel's energy, it's passed through the catalyst in which a chemical reaction occurs to convert the fuel back into liquid whose temperature has been boosted by 63°C or 145°F. So, for example, if the fuel goes into the catalyst at 20°C, it comes out at 83°C. In this form, the fluid can be used for heating a home or business, or be used in any other system reliant on heated liquid. "You could use that thermal energy for your water heater, your dishwasher or your clothes dryer," MIT's Jeffrey Grossman tells NBC MACH. "There could be lots of industrial applications as well."

This last year has been a key time

(Johan Bodell)

Kasper Moth-Poulsen holds the tube containing the MOST catalyst

The first iteration of the Chalmers fuel was revealed about a year ago, and in the intervening months, the researchers have been working toward the robust behavior they're now seeing, even beyond achieving that remarkable 18-year storage potential. "We have made many crucial advances recently, and today we have an emissions-free energy system which works all year around," says Moth-Poulsen.

Though other researchers have experimented with similar uses for norbornadiene, their fuels broke down after just a few cycles before their research was abandoned. Those earlier fuels also didn't hold the energy very long.

The Chalmers team also originally had to mix their isomer with flammable toluene. Now, however, they've worked out a way to use the isomer without dangerous additives.

Storing solar energy

As the world moves to renewable energy, solar energy has proven to be among the most attractive: Sunlight is free and releasing its energy produces no pollution or harmful effects. One remaining limiting factor has been finding ways of storing solar energy that are as clean as solar energy itself. Much work is being down with batteries, but it's difficult to produce power cells without using toxic materials. The MOST system offers an exciting new angle to pursue.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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