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MIT Designs A Polymer Super Suit Using Solar Energy

The Grossman group of MIT has developed a transparent polymer that can store energy by using a solar cell and can release controllable heat at any time. This newly engineered material depends upon the Sun, which is a practically inexhaustible source of energy and stores the energy in the form of chemical energy, and releases it later as heat. Jeffrey Grossman, lead researcher of the team is hopeful that their new research product could turn out to be a boon for the clothing industry, and provide humans a new type a protective wear.

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Infrared animation of A heating element
The team also explained that this novel concept first came to their mind, while analysing the concept of harvesting solar energy for long term usage, as required in various sectors. Conventionally, solar energy is converted to electrical energy and serves as an environment friendly renewable energy source, but the researchers wanted to come up with something new and innovative by using similar ideas.

They experimented with a molecule that can remain stable in either of two different configurations. When sunlight is incident on the molecule, the energy excites the molecule, and it jumps up to an excited state and can remain in the 'charged' state for a long period. This phenomenon is known as stimulated absorption. In the next step, when the charged molecule is once again triggered by a certain temperature or other stimulus, the molecules come down to their original stable state, releasing non-radiative energy i.e. heat.
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Research Platform for testing Macroscopic heat release
Such molecules were used to make the specific material in the form of 'solar thermal fuels (STF)'. STF has been developed before, including in a previous work by Grossman and his team, with limited utility in solid state applications. The junior-most member of the research group, Cho commented that manufacturing the new material requires two simple and scalable processes.

He further explained that in order to make use of a thin film structure as the energy store, the team initially chose materials called azobenzenes which change their molecular configuration in response to light. Ultimately a chemically improved version of azobenzenes were found to be just the right choice for their work.


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A spin-coating process enables deposition of the solar thermal fuel polymer material from solution

The resultant material is highly transparent, which could make it useful for de-icing car windshields. The material, however has a slight yellow tinge to it and the researchers are looking to increase the transparency of the material in the future. They also have the potential to form super suits that can warm the body as per requirement.

Grossman, who is the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems, and a professor of materials science and engineering, confirmed that the research has been funded by the NSERC Canada Banting Fellowship and by the German automobile giant, BMW. He expects the research collaboration to yield pioneering results in the field of 'alternative resource design'.

Source: MIT News | Advanced Energy Material Journal

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