Are you, like me, struggling to summon the proper enthusiasm ahead of Easter this time around? No matter how many daffodils I plant and how fluffy and colourful feathers I decorate branches with, the holiday spirit still eludes me. Perhaps it is because of those cold winds blowing from the North that temporarily suspended the budding spring. More likely, however, the blood-chilling war news flow from the South is what dampens the urge to rejoice. April is the cruellest month indeed, as Eliot once remarked.
The sun is doing its best, though, shining gamely on the frozen landscape, stirring brave tiny petals and leaves to life, trying desperately to cheer me up. And, browsing through the news, miraculously, I find an encouraging research-related article full of sunshine and hope.
This lovely little piece of Easter candy, perfect for you and me to chew on during the coming holidays, comes courtesy of researchers from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. The new technology they are developing makes it possible to capture solar energy, store it, and release it when and where needed. After previously demonstrating how the energy can be extracted as heat, the research team announced just this week that they have succeeded in getting the system to produce electricity by connecting it to a thermoelectric generator. This could potentially lead to self-charging electronics using stored solar energy on demand.
The technology is based on the solar energy system MOST (Molecular Solar Thermal Energy Storage Systems). This specially designed molecule changes shape when it encounters sunlight, becoming an energy-rich isomer. The isomer can then be stored in liquid form for later use. The researchers have refined the system to the point that it is now possible to store the energy for up to 18 years. A specially designed catalyst releases the saved energy as heat while returning the molecule to its original shape, so it can then be reused in the heating system. Now, in combination with a micrometre-thin thermoelectric generator, the energy system can also generate electricity to order.
“This is a radically new way of generating electricity from solar energy. It means that we can use solar energy to produce electricity regardless of weather, time of day, season, or geographical location. It is a closed system that can operate without causing carbon dioxide emissions,” says research leader Kasper Moth-Poulsen, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Chalmers.
To sweeten this candy even further, the Swedish scientists describe their collaboration with Shanghai Jiao Tong University researchers in almost poetic terms. It is the Chinese team that helped combine the sun-loaded molecule with a compact thermoelectric generator to convert solar energy into electricity. “Essentially, Swedish sunshine was sent to the other side of the world and converted into electricity in China,” they conclude.
While a lot of research and development remains before we can start charging our technical gadgets or heat our homes with stored solar energy, the new fossil-free, emissions-free technology does sound very promising. Something worth celebrating, indeed.
Happy Easter, everyone!
 The Waste Land, by the way, was written exactly a hundred years ago, in 1922, in a Europe riddled by the horror and destruction of the First World War.