ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Storing solar energy for the swing shift

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A team of Virginia Tech researchers is developing the technology to store solar energy in fuel cells for when the sun goes down. "Electricity generated via solar energy peaks in mid-day, but power consumption at home is typically concentrated from evening to early morning," says Kathleen Meehan, an assistant professor and principal investigator on the project.

Solarized fuel cells would enable energy produced in daytime to be stored for evening and cloudy-day use, while eliminating the need for batteries, she explains. Energy would be stored as hydrogen and oxygen through water electrolysis. When the solar system cannot produce enough energy for the load, the fuel cell would be used.

Technology improvements are needed, however, before such systems are affordable and reliable &mdash and the expertise to develop them is at Virginia Tech, she says. The team, which includes electrical, materials, chemical, and mechanical engineers is working on developing advanced solar cells with nanoscale conversion films; power tracking systems to divide solar power generated between the load and the electrolysis system, nanoscale catalysts to improve solar energy conversion to hydrogen optimized power conversion, and power conditioning for household and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle loads.

In addition to Meehan, principal investigators on the project are ECE's Jason Lai, G.Q. Lu, and Lou Guido, along with Richey Davis of chemical engineering and Douglas Nelson of mechanical engineering.