Solar power is currently a daytime-only energy source because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With this announcement, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers say they have discovered a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.
Requiring non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”
Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera’s lab, have developed a process that will allow the sun’s energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power a house or electric car, day or night.
The key component in Nocera and Kanan’s process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity — whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source — runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.
Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.
The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it’s easy to set up, Nocera said. “That’s why I know this is going to work. It’s so easy to implement,” he said.
More engineering work needs to be done to integrate the new scientific discovery into existing photovoltaic systems, but Nocera said he is confident that such systems will become a reality.
“This is just the beginning,” said Nocera, principal investigator for the Solar Revolution project and co-Director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center. “The scientific community is really going to run with this.”
Nocera hopes that within 10 years, homeowners will be able to power their homes in daylight through photovoltaic cells, while using excess solar energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen to power their own household fuel cell. Electricity-by-wire from a central source could be a thing of the past.
The complete article can be found at http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/story?id=53214