"Major discovery" could spark solar revolution

776px-SolarFachwerkhaus MIT scientists are touting a “major discovery” that will transfer solar power from a “limited, far-off solution” to “unlimited and soon.” (Via EurekAlert.)

Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work that’s in the July 31 issue of Science, and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow his lab, have created a new  catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water. When combined with another catalyst that produces hydrogen, their system can duplicate the water-splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis. Hydrogen and oxygen produced during the day while the sun is shining can be combined in a fuel cell at night when it’s not, solving the biggest problem with solar power–it doesn’t work when the sun doesn’t shine. Current methods of storing that energy are both too expensive and very inefficient.

Best of all, the new catalyst is made from abundant, non-toxic natural materials: it consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on it, and oxygen gas is produced. The catalyst works at room temperature and in neutral pH water, and is easy to set up.

Superlatives are being implemented to describe the discovery:

James Barber, a leader in the study of photosynthesis who was not involved in this research, called the discovery by Nocera and Kanan a “giant leap” toward generating clean, carbon-free energy on a massive scale.

“This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind,” said Barber, the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London. “The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem.”

Nocera hopes that within 10 years the system will be available to homeowners, allowing them to power their homes during the day with photovoltaic cells and use hydrogen and oxygen produced with the day’s excess energy to power their homes at night.

The net result?

Electricity-by-wire from a central source could be a thing of the past.

(Photo by T

3 thoughts on “"Major discovery" could spark solar revolution”

  1. Nocera’s technology is awesome and all, but having recently started as a solar analyst for a renewable firm, his discovery won’t be needed for a solar revolution. It’s already only a few years out. Photovoltaic production could reach 20GW a year in 2010 and 6.5GW of concentrated solar thermal is in the planning stages by 2012. Grid parity (at which point it’s just as cheap for solar as fossil fuels) is predicted for solar by 2012, with some technologies and companies reaching that point earlier. Thin film solar could reach $14Billion by 2011 even though it’ll be just 20% of the overall PV market.

    Solar is going to be big. The CEO of suntech (the first solar billionaire) recently said to the guardian that he thinks his company will be as big as the oil and automobile companies by 2020. A little government assistance (like the extension ITC tax bill rejected yesterday by the US senate) will help get the industry there faster but solar is coming of age.

  2. Interesting, and potentially useful down the line. The trouble with it right now is that the 1KW/m^2 sun incident on the Earth’s surface is only being converted with (at best) 20% efficiency to electricity. This means that for 1KW of electricity, you need at least 5 square meters of solar panels. With the average North American home consuming in the 1 to 2 KW range, and an average 8 hour sun lit day, this means that each home has to have at least 15 to 20 square meters of solar panel, just to keep up with consumption – and this doesn’t store H2 for a rainy day or winters. I can see this being used in some locations and places, but solar is pretty hard to justify here in the northern parts of North America. The grid is going to be with us for a good long time, yet. I’m betting on the boffins to come up with commercial fusion, first.

  3. Since my early days at school I’ve been dreaming of duplicating photosynthesis.
    Congratulations Nocera and Kanan.
    The first industrialists to make use of this development (Ford?) will make a fortune.

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