(NBC News) Solar energy is clean, abundant, and irritatingly inconvenient: It doesn’t work at night or on cloudy days. You can convert sunshine into electricity and store it in a battery, but that’s complicated and expensive. And much of the time, what you really want isn’t electricity but heat for tasks like cooking or warming homes.

What you want, in other words, is a way to bottle the heat of the noonday sun and then uncork it on demand. That sounds almost impossible, but some very determined scientists have found a way to make it happen — and they’re convinced the technology could be transformative.

A team led by Dr. Dhandapani Venkataraman, a chemist at the University of Massachusetts, reported last month on a new polymer that is stunningly effective at absorbing and releasing heat. Dubbed AzoPMA, the plastic-like material could be the key to the development of a high-efficiency “thermal battery” that could do for solar tech what high-performance electrical batteries have done for iPhones and Tesla cars.

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