Researchers at MIT say they have delivered a major breakthrough in storing solar energy, inspired by photosynthesis and using a catalyst made up of cobalt metal. In a paper published today in Science, MIT professor of energy, Daniel Nocera, says he’s developed a process that uses […]

Researchers at MIT say they have delivered a major breakthrough in storing solar energy, inspired by photosynthesis and using a catalyst made up of cobalt metal. In a paper published today in Science, MIT professor of energy, Daniel Nocera, says he’s developed a process that uses electricity generated from the sun or other renewable sources to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using abundant, non-toxic natural materials. The gases can then be stored and reintroduced into a fuel cell that can produce electricity.

The process hinges on a catalyst made up of cobalt metal and phosphate that’s attached to an electrode placed in water. By running solar energy through the electrode, the catalyst produces oxygen. Another catalyst-like platinum can produce hydrogen from water. The release says that, “[T]he system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.” The key is the catalyst’s simplicity, the researchers say. It works at room temperature and doesn’t require strong basic solutions, just water.

“This is just the beginning,” Nocera said in a statement. The work now will focus on integrating this technology into existing intermittent renewable energy systems. But he’s confident that within 10 years, people will be able to power their homes during the day with power coming off their solar panels, and to store extra energy via a fuel cell that they can then use at night. His hope is that it will make distributed generation a reality and force electricity-by-wire from a central source into obsolescence.

The project is part of MIT’s Solar Revolution, an initiative with the goal of making large-scale deployment of solar energy a reality within a decade. The initiative was launched with $10 million from the Chesonis Family Foundation. Additional funding for Nocera’s research came from the National Science Foundation.

  1. Why not just use batteries which are much more efficient? Unless there is a big efficiency breakthrough compared to electrolysis, this is a horrible idea. Earth2tech needs some engineers or scientists who understand energy.

  2. @vks A good reason for not using batteries to do this is that they are full of chemicals to story the electricity. When the batteries are no longer usable, they pose a major disposal problem.

  3. @vks – Energy density, read up on it.

  4. [...] a big boost, after MIT researchers say they’ve found a way to store the power using plain water, at Earth2Tech and Green Car Congress. Looking for clean-energy exposure? ETF’s are one idea—but the lack of [...]

  5. I’m sorry if I’m missing the obvious, but what exactly is the breakthrough? Where is the storage? How is this better than alternatives?

    Electrolysis = using electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen.

    First of all I don’t understand why you need two different catalyst coated electrodes; one cobalt/phosphate for the oxygen and a different platinum one for the hydrogen…isnt that like using two different knives to cut a piece of bread in half? One knife should suffice, right?

    Photosynthesis = plant process that uses sunlight, carbon and water to produce sugar/starch. In photosynthesis the sugar/starch is the energy store.

    Breaking up water is fairly easy (albiet not energy efficient) the problem is storing the hydrogen and oxygen for later use…isn’t it?

    Maybe I’m simply confused by the headline, which is about storing energy. The article is about using cobalt as a catalyst for breaking up water via electrolysis. I wish the writer said if this is cheaper or more efficient than alternatives, but in any event where is the storage?

    I am a huge believer in solar and want to see it common-place in ten years…but for this particular “breakthough” where’s the beef?

  6. disdaniel,

    Watch the video. In a nutshell, hydrogen is a great clean way to store energy (mix with oxygen and get electricity + H2O) BUT the problem has been getting the hydrogen. This guy claims he can get the hydrogen really easily and cheaply. If it’s true it’s a huge breakthrough.

  7. There’s not much new here other than possibly the catalyst.

    Pure H2O is a non-conductor. It is the impurities in water that allow it to conduct electricity and in the electrolysis process, the common “impurity” has been introduced sulphuric acid, the same stuff as is in your car battery. The metal at one electrode is dissolved during when a current is supplied and that metal is redeposited at the other electrode.

    For purposes of electroplating this is wonderful. For the purpose of splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, it’s not. So if someone (Prof. Nocera for instance) can come up with less expensive and longer lasting electrodes and a non-corrosive catalyst, the whole process moves towards greater (if not complete) efficiancy.

    Perhaps this could have been explained a little better in the article. It sounds like the Professor is claiming to have invented electolysis. He didn’t, those pesky Iranians (Persians that is,) did a two or three millenia ago.

  8. I agree that storing is not the real problem, we can use battaries which are already here, more efficient and less dangerous. The real problem is the production of energy and not the storage.

  9. Well, it’s like this:

    This breakthrough will allow the the wholesale creation of water, cheap energy, and reduce the infrastructure to distribute that energy. It will, replace oil altogether.

    It works by allowing water to be separated into hydrogen and Oxygen, cheaply and with little effort.

    Plants, as you know, take in water, and using only sunlight, separate the water into hydrogen and oxygen. By studying plants, the Norcea Group has developed a method, using cobalt metal, a relatively abundant metal, as a catalyst, to accomplish something similar to the plant mechanics.

    The result is low energy separation of the hydrogen and oxygen atoms from water. The applications can be developed and implemented within the next 10 years, enabling everyone to manufacture their own electricity at home, no need of electrical plants for residential users.

    If you extend this innovation and include the breakthroughs that are occurring in genetics, we are looking at a future where we grow our own food, make our own electricity, fresh water, and transportation fuel, in our home. This will make Oil become so cheap, it might not be practical, from a business perspective to pull it out of the ground.

    It is the future and a near future at that.


Comments have been disabled for this post