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    These MIT Researchers Say They Are Going To Revolutionize Solar Energy
    Submitted by News Staff on 31 July 2008 – 2:00am. Energy

    To-date, solar power is a marginal, boutique alternative to mainstream energy but MIT researchers say they have overcome a major barrier to large-scale, cost-effective solar power: efficiently storing energy for use when the sun doesn’t shine.

    Solar power is currently a daytime-only energy source because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. MIT researchers say have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.

    Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT 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.

    This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said Nocera, senior author of the 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.”

    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.


    Sunlight has the greatest potential of any power source to solve the world’s energy problems, said Nocera. In one hour, enough sunlight strikes the Earth to provide the entire planet’s energy needs for one year.

    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.”


    Currently available electrolyzers, which split water with electricity and are often used industrially, are not suited for artificial photosynthesis because they are very expensive and require a highly basic (non-benign) environment that has little to do with the conditions under which photosynthesis operates.

    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 funded by the Chesonis Family Foundation 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 project is part of the MIT Energy Initiative, a program designed to help transform the global energy system to meet the needs of the future and to help build a bridge to that future by improving today’s energy systems. MITEI Director Ernest Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, noted that “this discovery in the Nocera lab demonstrates that moving up the transformation of our energy supply system to one based on renewables will depend heavily on frontier basic science.”

    The success of the Nocera lab shows the impact of a mixture of funding sources – governments, philanthropy, and industry. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and by the Chesonis Family Foundation, which gave MIT $10 million this spring to launch the Solar Revolution Project, with a goal to make the large scale deployment of solar energy within 10 years.



    GREAT article – and good news… 

    I truly think in ten years we are going to look around amazed at how we once lived in NOT being green.  I fully expect to drive an electric car – and have solar/wind power – and recycle water as a fairly mainstream homeowner/working adult.

    Rather like the difference between now with online/wireless phone – and how we were ten years ago.

    But these green issues affect the WORLD – not just the individual…and it’s all very positive and exciting.



    I agree.  I thought it was pretty darn cool.  There is a lot of good news coming from the area of energy storage.  If I find the article I’ll post about the superconducting capacitors which are being considered for use on the moon.  They store an incredible amount of energy.  Of course if someone else finds an article first that’s cool too.  :-)

    I would love to have effective solar power when I have a house.  It’s darn sunny in Texas, might as well have a benefit for that crazy heat!  :-)  Also, it doesn’t involve adding some noise pollution from wind power, or other polution through the burning of fossil fuels.  It really is the best option if we can make it work well, with other methods used as a backup.  What also is cool is that MIT has already put this out there for people to use their license and work on developing products, rather than being greedy and trying to make a single company with a patent.  This will get it to market much faster, and hopefully cheaper. 

    Kol Drake

    Old news is new news?

    After reading this post I was confuzzeled a mite since I know I saw and video broadcast near six months to nine months ago (( old solar/energy researching )) — talking on hydrogen fuel cells for cars.  The car ‘filling up’ at a stand alone kiosk which was a solar powered unit that broke water down into Hydrogen and Oxygen and compressed the Hydrogen so it could be pumped into the fuel cell.

    Perhaps the MIT is special as they are using cobalt and a phosphate as their catalysts but, the rest of the idea is something already being used in the world.


    The method is the key I think.  They mentioned there are commercial ways to do this, but it is more expensive and not ideal for use in homes for instance.  We have the technology to do many of the things we want in a green way, but we don’t have the technology to do so at an affordable price, or at the efficiency required.  This is a critical step in bridging that gap.



    I think there are some other problems before this will work properly…
    First of all, solarcells are all along a big investment…

    I don´t think you´ll be able to close that gap soon.
    I mean what will you do with the stored energy?

    You´ll need a big storage to get this handy and all along what about the energy you can´t store?
    I don´t think you´ll get an energyreseller you could sell that.

    I think this will be more suitable with other techniques.
    All along with fossile variantes.
    But for a while this will be something great for industrial use.



    Actually every day i get an email with tons of news about solar energy.  There are many companies working on making them more efficient and affordable.  We just don’t hear much in the regular news until something really big happens.  Very good progress is being made and it’ll be feasible well before we expect it.


    Would be nice, no doubt

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