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.

Scientists can now bottle solar energy, turn it into liquid fuel
Image: Zerbor/zapulzon/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • 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

Kasper Moth-Poulsen holds the tube containing the MOST catalyst

(Johan Bodell)

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.

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

Megalodon attacks a seal.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
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  • A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
  • The megalodon was one of the largest fish that ever lived.
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