MIT breakthrough in electric storage problem

Splitting water to store electricity: A snapshot showing the new, efficient oxygen catalyst in action in Dan Nocera's laboratory at MIT.
Splitting water to store electricity: A snapshot showing the new, efficient oxygen catalyst in action in Dan Nocera's laboratory at MIT.Courtesy MIT/NSF

Saving up energy for use at night

Want to be energy independent? Solar and wind energy are great but what do you do when the sun goes down and the wind doesn't blow? Batteries with the needed capacity are very expensive.

Energy can be saved up by breaking water apart into hydrogen and oxygen

Using a surprisingly simple, inexpensive technique, chemists have found a way to pull pure oxygen from water using relatively small amounts of electricity, common chemicals and a room-temperature glass of water. At night that oxygen can be combined with hydrogen (also extracted from water) in a fuel cell to make electricity.
The new process, enabling water to more easily be split, is to use a catalyst consisting 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."
"The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it's easy to set up. That's why I know this is going to work. It's so easy to implement," Danial Nocera (MIT news office)

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. Electric vehicles will also power up from this home system.

Learn more: MIT News

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

This is really cool, but I'm always skeptical. I think we've already heard so many stories about coming "revolutions" that it's easy to dismiss new innovations. I'd love to know more about this one, though. For example, how big would a unit have to be to power a house through the night? What if you were also powering a car? How expensive would it be? How many solar panels would you need, and how much room would they take? How much would they cost? Is there anything eco-unfriendly about the manufacturing process that we should factor in?

It seems almost too good to be true, doesn't it?

My neighborhood actually subsidizes (to a small extent) the use of solar panels for residential hot water. But the panels can only provide about 75% of a family's hot water usage. That's a great step forward, but it's a far cry from powering the whole house all day with enough leftover for storage and use through the night. Even if you covered our entire roof (which would currently be very expensive and very ugly), I don't think you could power the whole house 24 hours a day.

But the time is right for some serious energy innovation, and maybe this really is the breakthrough that gets us there.

posted on Fri, 08/01/2008 - 2:24pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Yeah, I heard about this on the radio yesterday and I was kind of psyched, but I'm with Liza on this one—I feel like we're swimming in "breakthroughs," and while I understand that these things don't enter infrastructure overnight, it seems like they often end up as a neat, but not necessarily practical, flash in the pan.

It would be nice to see how this compares to other methods of electrolysis. I mean, I hope it's as a big a deal as they make it out to be, but we'll see...

posted on Fri, 08/01/2008 - 2:36pm
ARTiFactor's picture
ARTiFactor says:

Electrolysis of water, until now, has been too difficult to be considered for energy storage. This breakthrough happened because of a mixture of funding sources - governments, philanthropy, and industry. 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 make the large scale deployment of solar energy within 10 years.

Funding for frontier basic science research related to fuel cells, electrlysis, photovoltaics, and other areas within energy transformation sciences can and will allow us to live within our global energy budget instead of drawing down our petrochemical reserves.

Nocera and Kanan have found that replacing platinum with cobalt dramatically lowers the energy needed to split water molecules at the positive electrode. “It’s making oxygen at the bare minimum energy required,” Nocera says, although the chemistry involved is still not completely clear.

Nocera says he can’t precisely quantify the efficiency of a cobalt-based device until he builds a fully engineered electrolysis cell. “Give us a few more weeks,” he says.

This quote and more information is available at Science News.

posted on Fri, 08/01/2008 - 3:43pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

We want to reproduce these results at our institute. Will the inventors please contact us. Think of us as your peer review panel.

I feel that American media has this habit of exaggerating news of scientific progress. Einstein was made out to be god by the American media. He is now a cultural icon because of them largely. Maybe he deserved it but this seems to have caught on and we hear of revolutions every so often these days.

posted on Wed, 08/20/2008 - 2:19am
CameronRobertson's picture
CameronRobertson says:

Solar and wind energy are 2 really good resources that you can take advantage of to produce excess energy that you can harness and put in storage. They are free of charge and are readily available in abundance. If really done excessively and with proper harnessing methods, you will definitely be bound to save a lot on energy costs throughout the next several months to come. However, if your energy storage system uses up too much electricity or release excessive carbon, then it is really pointless to carry on with your intention.

posted on Wed, 07/02/2014 - 10:57pm
michaelmaloney's picture
michaelmaloney says:

Sounds like a really good, environmentally-friendly way of doing things alright. But I'd have to agree that I'm going to be quite skeptical about how exactly this whole thing can carry itself out. At the end of the day, it's not just about production and storage of energy, it's the prices of the production of energy as well as the sustainability that's really going to determine if this method works out!

posted on Mon, 09/15/2014 - 10:03pm

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