New Oxygen-Hydrogen Battery Could Be Key to Storing Solar Energy

By Eliza Strickland | August 1, 2008 2:46 pm

water electrolysis solar energy storageResearchers have come up with a cheap and easy process for storing solar energy, in a finding that could provide one of the final elements for efficient solar power systems: the ability to store excess energy in a battery for use later when the sun isn’t shining.

Researchers are euphoric about their invention, which could mark a great leap forward in solar technology; previous experimental batteries used to store solar energy have been bulky, expensive and inefficient. “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said [lead researcher Daniel] Nocera in the press release. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon” [Christian Science Monitor].

The new technique involves the standard process of electrolysis, in which a current is run through a liquid and used to split apart its chemical components. In this case, water is broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, which can be stored and recombined to power a hydrogen fuel cell. Current methods of producing hydrogen and oxygen for fuel cells operate in a highly corrosive environment, Nocera said, meaning the entire reaction must be carried out in an expensive highly-engineered container. But at MIT this week, the reaction was going on in an open glass container about the size of two shot glasses that researchers manipulated with their bare hands, with no heavy safety gloves or goggles [Reuters]. The researchers’ breakthrough was the creation of a new catalyst for the electrolysis reaction, using the common elements cobalt and phosphate.

The report, published in the journal Science [subscription required], is provoking speculation that the technology could do more than power houses at night; it could also figure into a larger switch to a “hydrogen economy,” in which fuel cells could be used as a clean energy source to power everything from cars to factories. Biochemist James Barber says that this work “opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production, thus reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem” [Reuters]. While much more research needs to be done to test the system’s economic viability, Nocera says he hopes commercial products will be available within a decade.

Image: MIT/National Science Foundation

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • http://www.everybodysagenius.wordpress.com William Flavell

    This is an amazing article. I am very excited about the further implications of this process.

    Thanks for the great article.

  • http://www.rickshawrecords.com Rickshaw

    This isn’t really an article about a new method of Solar energy storage, it’s about a safer catalyst for electrolysis:

    “The researchers’ breakthrough was the creation of a new catalyst for the electrolysis reaction”

    While a Cobalt/Phosphate catalyst may be safer than a corrosive catalyst, no matter what catalyst is used, at this time, solar electrolysis is not efficient enough to power a functional consumer automobile. You’d have to have some serious solar cells to generate enough H and O2 to power a car. Then, you’d have to transfer this stored energy to the fuel cell in your car or use a fuel cell in your home to charge your car’s battery overnight.

    I think the author’s leap from a safer catalyst to “opens up the door for… addressing global climate change” is a BIG stretch.

    Show me how I can power my car for 30 miles with a sub-$10,000 solar / fuel cell combination, and I’ll be impressed.

    – Rickshaw

  • arthur

    Well Im just simply happy for the fact that we as a global community are finally trying(that’s the key word…trying)to find alternative technologies for the over burdened and destructive toxins we love to use. Follow the link from Reuters which goes into a little more detail about the process, its not a full tech blog but it does state that the fuell cells we use now are very corrosive and expensive…this new tech will help to not only lower the costs but will be able to create a safe and environmentally friendly f-cell we can use, be it in a car, a house, or factory.

    Sure its not quite ready for commercial use, but its the first step forward and who knows, maybe 3 years from now they’ll redevelop it into the Hydrogen Power Stations(these things do generate enough power to run half a city block, and it fits in GMs new hybrid car the Hy-Wire) check it out here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrp9N1soo0o
    its 4mins in to the video(the blip runs for 30secs)but you should watch the whole clip, its about 6mins…very cool

    cheers

  • arthur

    Sorry forgot to tell ya to jump ahead about a min, the video wasnt clipped properly and they start off talkin about another car

    :)

    Art

  • comcy

    I agree with Rickshaw, a better cat does not mean the world suddenly became sustainable.
    Let’s say we have an affordable storage medium – Water as H2 and O2 gases. Where are you going to put that excess gas/energy? Are you going to compress it? There goes the energy you’re trying to save. Liquify it? No way! Store it in free floating balloons? Cool, but that takes up a lot of space.

    Don’t want to shoot down someone else’s progress report, but what America really needs is a free published batch method fuel alcohol that we can dump our lawn cuttings and waste food into. Something solar powered, something with a hopper at one end and fuel coming out the other that requires a small manual and just a bit of understanding as to the chemical processes going on inside. There are plenty of people and even universities working on projects close to this scale, which all have little or no funding. We are spending hundreds of billions on the Offense Budget (sorry, let’s be politically correct Defense Budget), but we cannot find 1/2 million to put something like this together?

    There is only one reason for this: We, systemically, have our priorities wrong. If an idea won’t make money for someone right now or in the very short term, it does not get funded?

    Or in a greater perspective, anything that promotes individual independence, living off the grid, or outside the box, it does not get funded. For example, an ad-hock mobile phone network that would not require service providers, just the phones we are all carrying with us.

  • John Miranda

    And what if the PV cells were @ 40.8% efficient, thus, increasing the solar power? Would that help?

    If this is a “battery” in the traditional sense, can it be used to produce electricity directly in an electric car sans the fuel cell?

  • Jim

    comcy: “Where are you going to put the excess gas/energy?”

    There are also some very promising ideas on the drawing board for safe ways to store Hydrogen. One example would be a Lithium Hydride (LiH). Either in battery or slurry, the LiH will absorb 5x its weight safely until a catalyst like heat or chem. reaction turns it back into a gas. There are technologies coming which will solve the problem. Stories like this only inspire others to try harder and work on solutions.

    I?ve looked into small production ethanol in your ?back yard?. Once upon a time that worked, almost everyone had an alcohol still in their back yard. But today, can you trust that the people running the meth-lab down the street won?t blow up the neighborhood?

    Yes technology exists for ad-hoc phone network. But, at a 1 watt maximum antenna power, you?d have to trust the population to be dense enough to accommodate your long distance call. If you break down between Dickinson and Bismarck, can you trust that someone else on I-94 will be close enough to hand off your call to the next mobile phone? That?s why we have a network of cell towers everywhere, and yes as a community we all pay for that infrastructure.

  • Greg

    Why not put a date on your publications. Its near freud to not do so especially on this type of publication.

  • YouRang

    I’m afraid there is a problem with all the hopes that this might decrease the size of the infrastructure. Suppose this catalyst is mass produced and everyone buys one. Will they also buy the alternative energy source? I think not. Instead they’ll store up energy from off the grid. Now they’ll store energy at night when energy is cheap and not needed–NOT DURING THE DAY when the solar power might be working. I suppose they might buy energy from the grid during the winter when it’s needed at night to warm; but there will be less excess energy and etc etc.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Hi, Greg — look at the bottom of the post. This was published on August 1, 2008.

  • mohiedin alshami

    10x

  • mohiedin alshami

    go up very good

  • Ikiro Kasawa

    Reading this article I notice that the comments are coming from the US only. And none are very good. Fortunately, there are many other developed countries in the world that do not keep their citizens in this paranoia paradise that everyone is to get them, and the science is marching fast forward. The benefits of that are that the science is open and accessible to all. So, it may warm your hearts to know that while you are struggling through unprecedent crisis and problems, we are coming up with solutions. nano particles lithium batteries that are minimum ten times better than those made in US, efficient desalination processes and machinery that is the most advanced currently in the world, with no issues like thos e in the US, better cars, petrol, diesel, hybrid, electric, even hydrogen ones (although germans are there on the top with Japan), you name it.

    And yes, we have cheap and super efficient catalysts for standard electrolysis too. The life couldn’t be better in the rest of the world.

  • http://www.google.com dunny

    last comment ride’n for a year. sound like someone hates the us.

  • Elizabeth E

    Just saw “This New House” on DIY TV today with this Solar Project highlighted. If you need a residence to try this experiment on, please contact me! We live in Southern Indiana and have sunshine, but not every day. Any energy savings from the sun would be welcomed! We don’t have enough sustainable wind to make wind energy viable. Has the price gone down any making it reasonable for the average homeowner? The $100,000.00 mentioned today is terribly expensive for most of us! Keep up the research Dr. Dan Nocera!

  • http://www.floridatripjournal.com/ Florida Trip

    I am brand-new to blogging and in actual fact loved your internet site. My goal is to bookmark your site and keep checking get you started. Thanks for sharing your internet site.

  • Tom Semms

    Let’s not follow the politically correct lie that manmade CO2 emission cause “dreadful”
    climate disaster! While the new water to hydrogen catalyzed reaction was shown at MIT, the MIT climate specialist Prof Richard Lindzen and others demonstrate that man’s CO2 does not drive global warming! (Solar flare output is the key factor, and demonstrated correlation is really that high air temperature causes release of CO2 from the sea as deep temperatures slowly warm up in delayed reaction). See the video on http://www.youtube.com

    “The Great Global Warming Swindle”

    However I’m looking at using various energy sources (even coal fired boilers) in some remote locations subject to long winter darkness (and little wind), and need ways to CHEAPLY store energy for electric circuits. And this new catalyst needed only some catalytic cobalt and phosphorus may be of interest for this. IF it can be dome more cheaply than other methods!

    What else is hot for such a system???

  • http://www.debtconsolidationloansite.org/ sacha davilak

    Near Granada, Spain, more than 28,000 metric tons of salt is now coursing through pipes at the Andasol 1 power plant. That salt will be used to solve a pressing if obvious problem for solar power: What do you do when the sun is not shining and at night?

    The answer: store sunlight as heat energy for such a rainy day.

    Part of a so-called parabolic trough solar-thermal power plant, the salts will soon help the facility light up the night—literally. Because most salts only melt at high temperatures (table salt, for example, melts at around 1472 degrees Fahrenheit, or 800 degrees Celsius) and do not turn to vapor until they get considerably hotter—they can be used to store a lot of the sun’s energy as heat. Simply use the sunlight to heat up the salts and put those molten salts in proximity to water via a heat exchanger. Hot steam can then be made to turn turbines without losing too much of the original absorbed solar energy

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