Saturday, August 23, 2008

MIT Researcher claims 24/7 solar power

Solar power is an intermittent energy source. It's only available when the sun is "up" and even then it's best on cloudless days. It would be difficult to rely soley on solar power, but at the same time every day there is enough solar energy striking the planet to supply all the "energy" needs our society currently uses. Solar energy is fetchingly attractive in many ways and the obvious thing to mitigate solar energy's intermittency is through energy storage.

"Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Daniel Nocera and his MIT colleague, Matthew Kanan have published a technical paper that describes what they claim is a breakthrough in solar energy storage. The idea is to use the energy from solar photovoltaic panels (or another electricity source) to crack water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Those gases would be stored and used later in a fuel cell to make electricity when the sun is not shining." Uh, this is new? It's clearly obvious one can use the electricity to separate hydrogen from water and later use that to generate power. I was scribing that equation in high school physics class and my excitement dampened when the numbers showed you lose power in the cycle of water to hydrogen to water. Which means where that cycle works is when there is an external input of energy, such as electricity from a solar panel.


"I'm open-sourcing this to let everybody run with it," he said. "My plan is that when people see it, they'll see it's easy to do and they'll start working it." Cool..

He has spent 25 years studying photosynthesis in order to develop this technology. It's way cool he's open sourcing it. The video makes it clear he's followed a sort of biomimicry pattern of thought, that clearly plants can store enough energy to make it through the night and so should human societies. The trick turns out to be the catalysts.

The technique makes use of earth-abundant materials and can be carried out in room temperature open environments with no special equipment or techniques required. The catalysts is a patented formulation of cobalt phosphate. Patent? Open Source?

"Because our catalyst is green, the machines that perform electrolysis can be much less expensive than they are today, since they don't need to be protected from environmental contaminants," said Nocera. Currently, MIT is working with photovoltaic cell manufacturers to incorporate electrolysis using their catalyst into solar energy systems. By combining the two, excess capacity during the day could be stored as hydrogen and oxygen, then used in fuel cells at night when needed. Cool, when can I buy one?

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