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Published on March 2nd, 2011 | by Tina Casey


Hard Smoke Could Play Key Role in Sustainable Energy Storage

March 2nd, 2011 by  

University of Central Florida researchers develop energy storing aerogel made from carbon nanotubesWind and solar power are surging these days, but with great power comes a great problem: how to guarantee a steady stream of energy when the source comes and goes. The solution, of course, is to find more efficient ways of storing energy. Among the new developments is a light-as-air material called aerogel, aka “frozen smoke.” Aerogels have been around for a while, but the latest twist is a new, more versatile form of aerogel made from carbon nanotubes.

Different Kinds of Aerogel

Aerogels are made by drying certain materials like silica (the foundational part of common sand), alumina (the raw ingredient for aluminum), or even clay and rice husks. The  process is more sophisticated than simple evaporation. It involves replacing moisture with gas, so the material retains a solid shape. Typical aerogels look translucent but they feel a bit like polystyrene. Because of their unique properties, aerogels have a lot of potential for sustainability-related jobs including soaking up oil spills and insulating buildings, but so far their cost has been an obstacle.

Aerogel from Carbon Nanotubes

At the University of Central Florida researchers are developing an aerogel made from carbon nanotubes. The advantage of nanotubes is their relatively large surface area packed into a very small area, combined with conductive properties. When incorporated into a lithium battery, this aerogel could result in vastly improved energy storage. Similar research is being conducted at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Paul Pascal Research Center in France, with the aim of developing low cost production methods.

Future Energy Storage

While some researchers are focusing on futuristic energy storage solutions, there have also been some exciting developments based on conventional materials such as molten salt. Even ancient technologies are getting a new life in alternative energy storage, the flywheel (think potters’ wheels) being one standout example.

Image: Smoke by Adam & Tess on flickr.com. 
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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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