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article image'Major discovery' from MIT may revolutionize solar energy

By Chris V. Thangham     Aug 1, 2008 in Environment
MIT researchers have solved a major barrier to large-scale solar power generation by storing energy for later use when the sunlight is at a minimum.

Daniel Nocera describes new process for storing solar energy
Previously, solar power was able to generate energy only during the day. Storing the excess energy for later use was extremely expensive. While scientists are solving it step by step, MIT researchers have found a novel way of harnessing the excess energy and using it later inexpensively.
Dr. Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT, and his team developed a unique method using abundantly available, non-toxic natural materials to store the energy and use them later.
They developed their work by studying the photosynthesis in plants. Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera’s lab, have developed inexpensive and efficient catalysts. Once the solar panels receive the sun’s energy, this catalytic process will split the water into hydrogen and oxygen gases, which can be later recombined inside a fuel cell. When the sunlight is at a minimum for solar power generation, the fuel cell takes over and creates carbon-free electricity like the sun’s energy and can be used to power the home or recharge the electric cars.
Daniel Nocera wrote in his paper in the July 31 issue of Science:
This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years…Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.
MIT researchers novel addition to solar power.
MIT researchers novel addition to solar power.
MIT researchers use catalysts with solar power.
MIT researchers use catalysts with solar power.
One catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode placed in water. When electricity is generated by solar power, it runs through the electrode, cobalt and phosphate and creates an oxygen gas. Another catalyst, such as platinum, produces hydrogen gas from the water. This process duplicates the water splitting reaction that occurs during the photosynthesis in plants.
Other advantages with these catalysts are they can be used to store energy from any other process such as energy from wind turbine, hydro electric or any other power generation. And it works at room temperature in neutral pH water. Thus, it makes the whole process inexpensive compared to expensive storage battery solutions.
Nocera said we are not taking advantage of sunlight to solve the world’s energy problems. He said in one hour there is enough sunlight to provide the entire planet’s energy needs for one year.
James Barber, a leader in the study of photosynthesis called this discovery a “giant leap”. He told MIT: "This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind…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."
Nocera hopes to implement this technology very soon and said within the next 10 years, this system will be integrated in many homes and electricity-by-wire will become a footnote in history.
This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and by the Chesonis Family Foundation, which gave MIT $10 million this spring to launch the Solar Revolution Project, with a goal to expand the large-scale deployment of solar energy within 10 years.
The efficiency of solar panels have improved considerably coupled with this discovery; solar power has a bright outlook except for some ill-advised politicians.
Europe also announced earlier to power the entire Europe using solar power generated from just 0.3 per cent of Saharan sunlight.
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