Skip to main content

Solar-powered liquid battery hybrid prototype could be major breakthrough

liquid battery solar song jin 0015
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Everyone loves the idea of solar energy, but the reality is that it’s not always efficient enough for our needs.

At present, solar cells have not been developed at a scale relative to our total energy requirements. Although engineers are building ever cheaper and more efficient solar panels for lapping up the sun’s rays, one major bottleneck is the inability to store this energy for times when the sun’s not shining down on us.

A new proof-of-concept device created by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Wisconsin, and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia may help change that, however. They’ve combined a solar cell with a large capacity liquid battery that skips the electricity-making process in favor of transferring the harvested solar energy directly to the battery’s electrolyte.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“We wanted to create a technology that not only harvests the solar energy but also stores it in the form of electricity, so it can be used on demand,” Song Jin, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Digital Trends. “Everyone’s familiar with a solar cell, which converts solar energy to electricity. But the problem with them is that, of course, the sun goes down every night and we don’t just want to use electricity when the sun is up.”

Discharging the battery to supply electricity at night, or on rainy days, is then a matter of connecting a load to a different set of electrodes, before passing the charged electrolyte through the device and letting the electricity flow out.

Before people get too excited, though, Jin said that the research still represents a work in progress.

“This is still an early prototype,” he said. “We’ve got a workable device, which we’ve shown can be charged without wasting too much energy in its cycles, but it only has a solar conversion efficiency level of about 1.7 percent. That’s compared to current commercial solar cells, which can be around 15-20 percent. Clearly we’re not at the level of being practically competitive yet, but as we point out in the paper we’ve got a lot of ideas for obvious directions we can take the research to improve the solar conversion efficiency, as well as the energy storage density.”

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
High temperatures and a diamond anvil could lead to a solar cell breakthrough
worlds largest solar farms longyangxia dam park 2

To improve the performance of solar panels, scientists have been increasingly exploring the potential of perovskites, a material with a crystal structure that represents a game-changing component for emerging solar cell technologies. Perovskite solar cells promise two very exciting qualities: Boasting high efficiencies in converting sunlight to electricity, while also being low cost in terms of materials and production methods.

They're no hassle-free solution however. In fact, they pose a considerable challenge since, of the four atomic configurations the material can take, three are unstable at room temperature, and rapidly revert to a fourth configuration that is useless for solar applications.

Read more
International Space Station has a major upgrade task coming
The International Space Station.

If you’ve ever seen the International Space Station (ISS) as it passes overhead 250 miles above Earth, then you’ll probably know that its bright appearance is a result of the sun reflecting off its four pairs of solar arrays.

Hosting the first astronauts in 2000, the initial pair of arrays were installed the same year, followed by three more pairs in 2006, 2007, and 2009.

Read more
Giving robots a layer of fat could help supercharge their battery life
BYU's Robot King Louie being built by NASA

Structural, rechargeable zinc battery

Robots could be on course to get fatter -- and it’s for their own good. In an effort to solve one of the biggest problems in current robotics, a lack of battery life, researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a new rechargeable zinc battery that could be worn around robots like a layer of fat. This could provide them with up to 72 times more power capacity than they get from today’s commonly used lithium-ion batteries.

Read more