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    Cool Storage: New Ways to Stockpile Energy

    Summer 2013

    Richard Harth

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    This schematic is of a 3-D supercapacitor utilizing graphene sheets studded with nano-oxide islands.

    According to Leon Shaw, the Rowe Family Endowed Chair in Sustainable Energy at IIT, innovations at the submicroscopic level may help to satisfy society’s mountain-sized demands for energy. Rather than hunting for new sources of energy, Shaw focuses on an equally vexing challenge: energy storage.

    In a pair of new projects funded by the National Science Foundation, Shaw applies nanotechnology techniques to store energy in two ways: through electrical charge in a device known as a supercapacitor, and chemically as hydrogen.

    Hydrogen provides a versatile, clean, and safe energy source, free of harmful emissions. “One of the key issues is how we can store hydrogen in a compact manner as the energy source for fuel cells and use this green technology to compete with an internal combustion engine,” Shaw says, describing one of the hurdles on the path to a hydrogen economy.

    One way to achieve this is to dissolve hydrogen molecules on the surface of a specialized material—ideally, one with a very high surface area. Shaw’s approach involves mixing two lightweight materials—lithium borohydride  and magnesium hydride—at nanometer scale. “The [scientific] community has been thinking of mixing these two together for the last 10 years, but nobody could achieve it,” Shaw says.

    Once lithium borohydride and magnesium hydride nanoparticles are combined, the available surface area for hydrogen storage becomes enormous and the release and uptake of hydrogen can occur very rapidly, at a temperature near 150 degrees Celsius (302 degrees Fahrenheit), which Shaw considers nearly ideal.

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