Cheap Catalyst Could Turn Sunlight, Water Into Fuel
| By Alexis Madrigal | July 31, 2008
A new catalyst makes it feasible to split water with solar power.
MIT chemists say the catalyst, used in conjunction with cheap photovoltaic solar panels, could lead to inexpensive, simple systems that use water to store the energy from sunlight.
In the process, the scientists may have cleared the major roadblock on the long road to fossil fuel independence: Reducing the on-again, off-again nature of many renewable power sources.
The catalyst enables the electrolysis system to function efficiently at room temperature and at ordinary pressure. Like a reverse fuel cell, it splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. By recombining the molecules with a standard fuel cell, the O2 and H2 could then be used to generate energy on demand.
"You've made your house into a fuel station," Daniel Nocera, a chemistry professor at MIT said. "I've gotten rid of all the goddamn grids."
Solar energy currently makes less than one percent of the world's electricity. The main drawback of the technology, preventing wider adoption, is that solar systems only make power while the sun is shining. At night or on cloudy days, those in need of power must look elsewhere. So storage of electrical energy has been a long-sought after technological advance. Batteries work but they're too big and expensive. Fuels, fossil or renewable, are different: They act as their own storage, allowing for easy transport and usage. That's one reason that coal and oil have such a dominant hold on the world's energy market.
The MIT discovery could help transform electricity generated through solar energy into a fuel, making it more competitive with fossil fuels. That could prove to be a major milestone in clean technology.