Jul 22, 2019 | Updated: 09:15 AM EDT

Aerogel Could Revolutionize Solar Energy Collection

Jul 04, 2019 08:50 AM EDT

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Test Device (IMAGE)
(Photo : Lin Zhao) A test device installed on a rooftop at MIT proved the effectiveness of the new insulating material. When placed in sunlight the device heated up to 220 degrees C., even though the outside temperature at the time was about zero degrees.
Insulating Material (IMAGE)
(Photo : Lin Zhao) The new aerogel insulating material is highly transparent, transmitting 95% of light. In this photo, parallel laser beams are used to make the material visible.

A newly developed material that is so perfectly transparent you can barely see it could unlock many new uses for solar heat. It generates much higher temperatures than conventional solar collectors do - enough to be used for home heating or for industrial processes that require heat of more than 200 degrees Celsius.

The key to the process is a new kind of aerogel, a lightweight material that consists mostly of air, with a structure made of silica. The material lets sunlight pass through easily but blocks solar heat from escaping. The findings are described in the journal ACS Nano, in a paper by Lin Zhao, an MIT graduate student; Evelyn Wang, professor and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor in Power Engineering; and five others.

The key to efficient collection of solar heat, Wang explains, is being able to keep something hot internally while remaining cold on the outside. One way of doing that is using a vacuum between a layer of glass and a dark, heat-absorbing material, which is the method used in many concentrating solar collectors but is relatively expensive to install and maintain. There has been great interest in finding a less expensive, passive system for collecting solar heat at the higher temperature levels needed for space heating, food processing, or many industrial processes.

Aerogels, a kind of foam-like material made of silica particles, have been developed for years as highly efficient and lightweight insulating materials, but they have generally had limited transparency to visible light, with around a 70 percent transmission level. Wang says developing a way of making aerogels that are transparent enough to work for solar heat collection was a long and difficult process involving several researchers for about four years. But the result is an aerogel that lets through over 95 percent of incoming sunlight while maintaining its highly insulating properties.

The key to making it work was in the precise ratios of the different materials used to create the aerogel, which are made by mixing a catalyst with grains of a silica-containing compound in a liquid solution, forming a kind of gel, and then drying it to get all the liquid out, leaving a matrix that is mostly air but retains the original mixture's strength. Producing a mix that dries out much faster than those in conventional aerogels, they found, produced a gel with smaller pore spaces between its grains, and that therefore scattered the light much less.

In tests on a rooftop on the MIT campus, a passive device consisting of a heat-absorbing dark material covered with a layer of the new aerogel was able to reach and maintain a temperature of 220 C, in the middle of a Cambridge winter when the outside air was below 0 C.

Such high temperatures have previously only been practical by using concentrating systems, with mirrors to focus sunlight onto a central line or point, but this system requires no concentration, making it simpler and less costly. That could potentially make it useful for a wide variety of applications that require higher levels of heat.

For most purposes, the passive heat collection system would be connected to pipes containing a liquid that could circulate to transfer the heat to wherever it's needed. Alternatively, Wang suggests, for some uses the system could be connected to heat pipes, devices that can transfer heat over a distance without requiring pumps or any moving parts.

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