Large scale deployment of solar power in our homes as a mainstream energy could one day be part of our lives as researchers from MIT, USA overcome a major barrier to storing energy in a simple, inexpensive and highly efficient way when the sun doesn't shine.
The development has been inspired by photosynthesis performed by plants which still require energy because they need to live even when the sun is not out. The scientists have worked out how to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases efficiently using the suns energy.
The main component in this process is a catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces hydrogen gas. The new catalyst 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. Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis. The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and is easy to set up claim the researchers.
More work still needs to be done to integrate the process into existing photovoltaic systems but MIT's Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT hopes that within 10 years, homeowners will be able to power their homes in daylight through photovoltaic cells, while using excess solar energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen to power their own household fuel cell. Electricity-by-wire from a central source could be a thing of the past.
"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."
Currently available electrolyzers, which split water with electricity and are often used industrially, are not suited for artificial photosynthesis because they are very expensive and require a highly basic (non-benign) environment that has little to do with the conditions under which photosynthesis operates.
Source of top image: Tom White, MIT