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“The single most important discovery of the century for solar power”

August 1st, 2008 · No Comments

A breakthrough that forwards two forms of alternative energy in a complementary fashion. And guess what? It’s cheap as well. This really is substantial news.

The problem with solar power is that it only works when the sun shines. The problem with fuel cells that they need a clean and efficient source for getting hydrogen (at present, most fuel cells get that from breaking down methanol). How about combining the two?

That would almost be the holy grail of alternative energy, in fact alternative energy wouldn’t be so ‘alternative’ anymore. It now seems that a significant step in this direction has been taken. From MIT Technology Review

  • Researchers have made a major advance in inorganic chemistry that could lead to a cheap way to store energy from the sun. In so doing, they have solved one of the key problems in making solar energy a dominant source of electricity.
  • Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry at MIT, has developed a catalyst that can generate oxygen from a glass of water by splitting water molecules. The reaction frees hydrogen ions to make hydrogen gas. The catalyst, which is easy and cheap to make, could be used to generate vast amounts of hydrogen using sunlight to power the reactions.
  • The hydrogen can then be burned or run through a fuel cell to generate electricity whenever it’s needed, including when the sun isn’t shining.

Seems like a good idea, but what exactly is so revolutionary, why couldn’t it be done before?

  • Solar power is ultimately limited by the fact that the solar cells only produce their peak output for a few hours each day.
  • The proposed solution of using sunlight to split water, storing solar energy in the form of hydrogen, hasn’t been practical because the reaction required too much energy, and suitable catalysts were too expensive or used extremely rare materials. Nocera’s catalyst clears the way for cheap and abundant water-splitting technologies.

If you still fail to see the fundamental break-through:

  • Nocera’s advance represents a key discovery in an effort by many chemical research groups to create artificial photosynthesis–mimicking how plants use sunlight to split water to make usable energy. “This discovery is simply groundbreaking,” says Karsten Meyer, a professor of chemistry at Friedrich Alexander University, in Germany. “Nocera has probably put a lot of researchers out of business.” For solar power, Meyer says, “this is probably the most important single discovery of the century.”

The most important single discovery of the century for solar power. Do we have anything to add to that? No. Are we enthusiastic. You’ll bet! When can we see this wonder in practice. Not immediately, but it’s not going to take too long either:

  • There’s also still much engineering work to be done before Nocera’s catalyst is incorporated into commercial devices. It will, for example, be necessary to improve the rate at which his catalyst produces oxygen.
  • Nocera and others are confident that the engineering can be done quickly because the catalyst is easy to make, allowing a lot of researchers to start working with it without delay. “The beauty of this system is, it’s so simple that many people can immediately jump on it and make it better,” says Thomas Moore, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University.

This adds a significant advantage to using solar power and vindicates those countries that, with heavy subsidies, have kick-started these technologies. Another big impetus comes from rising prices of traditional energy, which has increased incentives for this kind of research and everywhere in the world, some of the smartest brains are working towards making clean energy cheap and readily available.

Tags: Solar sector