A few months ago, an article was released in Science Advances describing how Chinese researchers turned copper into “gold” by blasting it with hot, charged argon gas.
This blasting process knocks off the copper atoms, which are then collected as a very micronized copper sand that has very different properties. This modified copper dust is used as a catalyst to turn coal into alcohol.
While the copper did not actually turn into real gold, it has the same catalytic properties of precious metals such as silver and gold. It also resists oxidation and high temperatures.
The implications are potentially very large. Gold and silver are used in electronics, but of course is very expensive but if copper can be made to have catalytic or electrical properties that are similar to gold or silver, it could be a game-changer.
The overall concept is explained in this one sentence: “A solar thermal fuel is like a rechargeable battery, but instead of electricity, you put sunlight in and get heat out, triggered on demand,” – Jeffrey Grossman, Engineer MIT
Here is a simple diagram that shows the concept:
When heat from the sun warms a fluid, it changes the molecules so that this heat can be released at a later time on demand when it is exposed to a catalyst.
What I see as a huge instant benefit is the efficiency of the system. Solar panels are around 20% efficient, which is horrible, but some of the best solar heat collectors such as the evacuated tube collectors can be in the high 90%. Being that heating accounts for about half of the average home energy use, this method makes a lot of sense.
It is likely you have experience with a fluid that operates similar to this – sodium acetate heating pads. These are plastic containers with a simple chemical solution. When you heat them up, the solution liquefies and stays that way until activated. There is a tiny metal, flexible disc inside. When the disc is bent or “clicked”, it triggers a chain reaction crystallization process of the chemical that heats up. This is of course oversimplified compared to the Solar Thermal Fuel technology, but is suffice to convey the concept in simple terms.