Saturday, 02 August 2008 06:59

Goodbye oil! MIT discovers artificial photosynthesis!

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The chief professor of energy at MIT and a fellow researcher have discovered a cheap way to mimic the way plants store energy from the sun and say that it will enable homes and electric cars to be run entirely on solar power and fuel cells. The energy nirvana has been found and could signal the era of centralised power distribution they say.

Professor Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT, and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, have developed a new process that splits water into Hydrogen and Oxygen gases at room temperature in much the same way that plants use sunlight to split water during photosynthesis.

Long hailed as the future salvation of makind's energy problems, solar power has suffered from the lack of a cheap, efficient and easily implemented storage solution for continuous power when the sun doesn't shine. Nocera and Kanan's discovery promises to provide the missing link in the formula to see off the era of non-renewable, polluting fossil fuels.

MIT has described the discovery as a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source.

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.

"This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," said Professor Nocera, the senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."

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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.

Sunlight has the greatest potential of any power source to solve the world's energy problems, said Nocera. In one hour, enough sunlight strikes the Earth to provide the entire planet's energy needs for one year.

Nocera and Kanan's discovery has won praise from their peers in the global scientific community.

James Barber, a leader in the study of photosynthesis, called the discovery by Nocera and Kanan a "giant leap" toward generating clean, carbon-free energy on a massive scale.

"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."

More engineering work needs to be done to integrate the new scientific discovery into existing photovoltaic systems, but Nocera said he is confident that such systems will become a reality.
 
"This is just the beginning," said Nocera, principal investigator for the Solar Revolution Project funded by the Chesonis Family Foundation and co-Director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center. "The scientific community is really going to run with this."

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. And by implication, that would mean the end of fossil fuels.

The MIT release plus a video of Professor Nocera talking about this revolutionary discovery can be found here.

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Stan Beer

 

Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.

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