An MIT chemist Dan Nocera, (who we have profiled here on the Smart Economy blog in the past) has developed a cobalt-phosphate catalyst that converts water and carbon dioxide into hydrogen and oxygen. The process is similar to organic photosynthesis, except that in nature, plants create energy in the form of sugars instead of hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be stored and used when needed in a fuel cell to manufacture electricity on site and on demand in your home, cutting your reliance to the electricity grid and eventually on gasoline to power your car.
With one bottle of drinking water and four hours of sunlight, MIT chemist Dan Nocera claims that using the electricity generated from a 30-square-meter photovoltaic array, Nocera can produce 30 Kwh of electricity, which is enough to power an entire household in the developing world. With about three gallons of river water, he could satisfy the daily energy needs of a large American home. The key to these claims is a new, affordable catalyst that uses solar electricity to split water and generate hydrogen.
The hydrogen produced through artificial photosynthesis can be stored in a tank and later used to produce electricity by being recombined with oxygen in a fuel cell, even when the sun isn’t shining. Alternatively, the hydrogen can be converted into a liquid fuel.
"Almost all the solar energy is stored in water splitting," Nocera said at the first-ever ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) conference last Tuesday. "We emulated photosynthesis for large-scale storage of solar energy."
With his start-up company, Sun Catalytix, Nocera hopes to make the system affordable enough to allow individual homes to generate their own fuel and electricity on-site. By distributing hydrogen production in this way, the new method could potentially solve the problem of hydrogen transportation.
“If I could store the sun in terms of a fuel, then at night when the sun goes down I can use the sun, effectively,” Nocera said in a company video. “What we’ve done is that we’ve made sunlight available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
In January, Sun Catalytix was awarded $4 million in government funding through the new ARPA-E agency. Modeled after DARPA, ARPA-E was formed to promote the development of advanced energy technologies - in this case, “direct solar fuels,” or “electrofuels.” Nocera explained that Sun Catalytix is using the financial support to take its prototype to the next level.
“Where Sun Catalytix is headed is that your house would become its own power station and gas station,” he said in the video. “All of a sudden, you don’t need any more energy from anybody else because you’re using the sun at your house.”
More information: www.suncatalytix.com
While a number of questions still need to be answered, in my mind this is one of the more promising alternative energy technology breakthroughs that I've seen in the past 5 years while blogging. I can only wonder how utilities and gas companies will react to this disruptive technology? Energy control has always ment global power. This industry change won't happen over night, but over the next few decades could Russia's day as a super power be numbered, (due to falling gas export revenues) ? What about Canada and Saudi Arabia? Time to start thinking about diversification. Could this be the technology that levels the economic playing field between the developed and developing world? In the future will governments start to tax water and air usage, when they loose taxes from gasoline use? These and many other questions need to be asked and answered.
Science 2008, 321, 1072-1075
Cobalt-phosphate oxygen-evolving compound
Chem. Soc. Rev. 2009, 38, 109-114
A Self-Healing Oxygen-Evolving Catalyst
J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131, 3838-3839
Electrolyte Dependent Electrosynthesis and Activity of Cobalt-Based Water Oxidation Catalysts
J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131, 2615-2620
Walter Derzko, Smart Economy, Toronto
Author of the soon-to-be published book-
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