Solar-Powered Fuel Cells Easy As Photosynthesis

A new discovery by MIT scientists lead by Daniel Nocera and Matthew Kanan may make oxygen/hydrogen fuel cells a practical reality.

The key to their discovery is a new catalyst that can produce oxygen gas from water, while another produces hydrogen gas. It consists of 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. The process works at room temperature in neutral pH water; it's easy to set up.

The greatest barrier to the use of fuel cells, which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce energy and have pure water as a 'waste' product, is the production of hydrogen. Typically, this is done in a way that wastes energy; it burns more energy than it produces.

Nocera and Kanan were inspired by photosynthesis, which is Nature's way of taking the Sun's energy and using it to power the growth of plants and then store that energy.


(MIT energy storage system video w/Nocera interview video)

If this process can be implemented as a consumer product for use in homes, it could make everyone's house a "power plant" and minimizes the need for large power production facilities.

During the daytime, the sun's energy is used to power your house and run MIT's energy process to store energy as hydrogen fuel.


(Store power during the day)

At night, the stored hydrogen can be burned in a fuel cell to provide power for the home, and to charge your electric car for the next day.


(Use the hydrogen in your fuel cell at night)

Experts are greatly impressed with the technique.

"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."

Professor Nocera hopes that this technology will be widely available within ten years for homeowners.

From MIT solar revolution.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 8/4/2008)

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