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Carbon’s Contribution (Jan.)

 

 

Financial Express, New Delhi,Tuesday 14th January 2014

Research on alternative sources of energy, like solar or wind power, has grown quite a lot over the past decade. Scientists have found novel ways to improve the efficiency of these systems by making the process of harnessing and transmitting this energy a much more fruitful process. However, the third aspect of this chain, storage, is proving to be a dampener on the hope that these alternative sources of fuel will significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The need for storage of electricity generated through solar or wind power is obvious—what do you do when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing? So far, this storage process has been expensive and inefficient. Currently, most battery technologies use metals such as nickel metal-hydride and lithium-ion. These are viable when it comes to small devices like smartphones or laptops, but when you scale them up (to power a house, for example) the cost becomes prohibitive.

That is why the research conducted at Harvard, which has yielded a carbon-based storage method twice as efficient as that in commercial use today, is so important. According to the Harvard study published in Nature, each carbon-based molecule holds two units of electrical charge compared with one unit in most batteries in use now, at a significantly lower cost, thanks to the abundance of carbon. The useful thing about carbon atoms is that they can link up to form very long chains, which can be engineered into numerous shapes yielding different molecules with separate chemical properties. As the Harvard researchers say, the molecule they are using (quinone) has proved to be twice as effective as what is currently being used, but different molecules of carbon could be even more efficient. The important thing about this research is that it finally allows a viable scaling up of batteries, along with a simultaneous shift away from the costly metals used today.