UCLA Chemists Pioneer Long-Term Solar Energy Storage

Researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles developed a plastic material capable of storing solar energy for weeks, which could lead to breakthroughs in solar panel technology.

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 Polymer donors and fullerene acceptors. Photo credit: UCLA ChemistryResearchers from the University of California-Los Angeles developed a plastic material capable of storing solar energy for weeks, which could lead to breakthroughs in solar panel technology.

Currently, residential solar panels made from silicon can only hold energy for microseconds, while plastic alternatives are too inefficient. Typically, the plastics — called photovoltaic materials — allow electrons to be easily transferred back to a polymer and lost.

UCLA scientists, however, arranged the plastic components in such a manner that the solar energy is transferred and retained. The arrangement occurs easily and can be achieved in water; current methods generally utilize toxic solutions.

The chemists said the technology was inspired by photosynthesis and the ability of plants to keep positive and negative charges separated. The study was published in the journal Science.

“Modern plastic solar cells don’t have well-defined structures like plants do because we never knew how to make them before,” said Sarah Tolbert, a senior author of the study. "But this new system pulls charges apart and keeps them separated for days, or even weeks."

UCLA said the researchers are already working on incorporating the advanced plastic into solar cells.

“When we can put them together and make a closed circuit, then we will really be somewhere,” said Yves Rubin, another senior study author.

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