MIT Scores Major Solar Energy Storage Breakthrough

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Up until now, storing solar energy has been extremely expensive, but the code may have just broken, and by mimicking nature no less.

From MIT:

Requiring nothing but abundant, 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 and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. “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 an unprecedented 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 your house or your electric car, day or night.

Illustrations after the jump…

Here’s how it works…

And then…

And some additional details…

The key component in Nocera and Kanan’s new 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.

So if this new storage method works, electric cars could be the way to go if we can turn our homes into “gas” stations without having to suck power off the grid. Because that’s the biggest problem with alternative fuels…there’s little room for new infrastructure and the costs of adding it is prohibitively expensive for the oil companies, so they’re certainly not volunteering. This was we wouldn’t need additional infrastructure, just our own stores of solar power to juice up our cars over night.

In any event, very exciting stuff!

  • Jim S

    Combine that technology with this one and the possibilities are fascinating.

  • rachel

    Very interesting!

  • Frugal Wench

    I’m very excited about this, as I was just about to write a blog post on solar energy.

  • Curtis

    There are so many breakthroughs on the verge of happening in the solar energy field. Photo voltaic cells aren’t very efficient yet, but there is a new product being developed in California someplace that is a photosensitive ink that is layered onto a flexible film that can be adhered to any surface. It’s supposed to be tons more efficient than silicon based photo cell tech. Here’s a piece on it…

  • Tully

    Better, cheaper, and more efficient end-user electrical storage is a very good thing. Especially if it doesn’t require intensively metal-based batteries with all the problems associated with them, and is cost-effective.

    A major problem with “renewables” such as wind and solar for end users has always been the variable nature of the power production. Smoothing that curve is definitely helpful. Pumping your extra production back onto the grid isn’t much help when the grid infrastructure isn’t there to handle it, and when the grid can’t store it. End-user demand reduction for grid power without having to sacrifice actual end-user energy usage frees up capacity.