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.