Op-Ed: MIT's big solar breakthough: The economics of the future just got born

Posted Aug 4, 2008 by Paul Wallis
It’s so simple it’s stunning. Just do what any plant can do, and you can have as much solar power as you want. The missing link in the equation? An electrode. That’s also a good look at the costing: peanuts. This is the jackpot, in any language
An Oxygen Catalyst
A snapshot showing the new, efficient oxygen catalyst in action in Dan Nocera's laboratory at MIT.
Photo courtesy MIT/NSF
If you saw cgull's very thorough DJ article, you'll know this story already, but the economics of this are truly fantastic.
Science Daily gleefully explains, while MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the NSF (National Science Foundation) are presumably dancing on the ceiling:
Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun's energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.
Bye bye, fossil fuels, send us a postcard from hell.
This means the massive energy and infrastructure costs of the past are now history. This is energy's equivalent of the invention of the wheel, and it's not going to go away.
It couldn’t get any cheaper or cost effective than this, or any more practical. There’s some real elegance in this story, in the thinking, as well as the methodology.
The key component in Nocera and Kanan's new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable 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 it's easy to set up, Nocera said. "That's why I know this is going to work. It's so easy to implement," he said.
That last paragraph is important, because the practical, in the field, applications are inevitably the deciders. There are lots of ways of producing energy, including rubbing politicians together, and they’re not particularly cost effective. This is, and it’s all existing materials, and existing technology.
Industry has been crippled, effectively, by dependence on the old energy infrastructure. It's incredibly inefficient, staggeringly expensive, and that's before even bothering to talk about pollution, wars, inflation, oil crises, brain dead energy policies and greedy, ignorant, economy-wrecking jerks from the Stone Age.
The ability to produce oxygen out of a photovoltaic hat isn’t exactly bad news, either. The stuff’s murder to isolate, and dangerous. The world’s champion oxidizer has needed a better, and definitely a cheaper, source, for a while now, like about one and a half million years.
Some of Nocera’s projections for his baby are within ten years:
Nocera 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.
In terms of costs to consumers and governments, that alone will save taxpayers hundreds of billions.
Hydrogen and oxygen power can do more than power homes. They can power whole countries, whole continents, and whole planets.
For places like China, it's the answer to their hellish energy problems and shrinking margins.For India, it's the energy source they could have been praying for, cheap and plenty of it.
For the rest of the world it's an escape from economic price structures which could have been invented by a particularly unintelligent, thoughtless, Neanderthal.
The human race can consider itself very lucky it can now dodge the oncoming energy bullet, which has gone through most existing economic policies, bleating corporates, and budgets like a steel slug through cardboard.
There aren't any real alternatives to cutting energy costs. If the corporate world doesn't play ball, it doesn't matter, because a kid with a bucket of water could do this.
Wanna nominate a few Nobel Prizes, anyone?
In this case, a Nobel Peace Prize might for once go to a scientist.
For peace of mind.