Daniel Nocera and his associates at MIT have found yet another formulation, based on inexpensive and widely available materials that can efficiently catalyze the splitting of water molecules using electricity.

Nocera is heading towards low volt electrolysis with research that could ultimately form the basis for new storage systems that would allow buildings to be completely independent and self-sustaining in terms of energy: The systems would use energy from intermittent sources like sunlight or wind to create hydrogen fuel, which could then be used in fuel cells or other devices to produce electricity or transportation fuels as needed.

This is many system designers’ idea of energy nirvana.  Yet last week saw the Germans using electrolysis and going to methane with the hydrogen – a much more sensible result.  But when this research comes to market the consumer may well get to choose between trying to hold on to hydrogen or hooking up with carbon.  This writer has a fairly good idea, which will cost less and be most efficient – it’s not likely going to be the free hydrogen course.

Nocera uses the press release to explain that solar energy is the only feasible long-term way of meeting the world’s ever-increasing needs for energy, and that storage technology will be the key enabling factor to make sunlight practical as a dominant source of energy. He has focused his research on the development of less expensive, more-durable materials to use as the electrodes in devices that use electricity to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water molecules. By doing so, he aims to imitate the process of photosynthesis, by which plants harvest sunlight and convert the energy into chemical form.

Nocera is completely correct, other than humanity getting energy from the earth’s nuclear-fired geothermal heat or human engineered nuclear fission there isn’t anywhere else to go – unless there’s a fusion breakthrough or Dr. Randell Mills’ BlackLight Energy comes to market.

That makes Nocera’s idea of small-scale systems in which rooftop solar panels would provide electricity to a home, and any excess would go to an electrolyzer – a device for splitting water molecules – to produce hydrogen, which would be stored in tanks (or moved on to more practical molecules). When more energy was needed, the hydrogen (or methane) would be fed to a fuel cell, where it would combine with oxygen from the air to form water, and generate electricity.

Because the oxygen side is more difficult, that’s where Nocera and many other research groups have concentrated their efforts, releasing the oxygen atoms while the hydrogen provided a storable source of energy.

In the latest paper, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Nocera, along with postdoctoral researcher Mircea Dincă and graduate student Yogesh Surendranath, report finding that nickel borate can also efficiently and sustainably function as the oxygen-producing electrode.  This follows the 2008 paper reporting development of a water-splitting catalyst that is easily prepared from the earth-abundant materials cobalt and phosphorous.  That catalytic preparation operates in benign conditions of pH neutral water at room temperature and 1 atm pressure.

The cobalt/phosphorus effort has increased the rate of production from these catalysts a hundredfold from the level they initially reported two years ago.  Additionally the other electrode, which produces hydrogen, included the use of a relatively expensive platinum catalyst. But in further work, “we have totally gotten rid of the platinum of the hydrogen side,” Nocera says. “That’s no longer a concern for us,” he says, although that part of the research has not yet been formally reported via a paper.  That will be news as well.

Nocera says the new finding shows that the original compound was not a unique, anomalous material, and suggests that there may be a whole family of such compounds that researchers can study in search of one that has the best combination of characteristics to provide a widespread, long-term energy storage technology.  “Sometimes if you do one thing, and only do it once,” Nocera says, “you don’t know – is it extraordinary or unusual, or can it be commonplace?” In this case, the new material “keeps all the requirements of being cheap and easy to manufacture” that were found in the cobalt-based electrode, he says, but “with a different metal that’s even cheaper than cobalt.”

While the two compounds discovered so far work well, Nocera is convinced that as they carry out further research even better compounds will come to light. “I don’t think we’ve found the silver bullet yet,” he says.  “This is a door opener,” to expanding the research. Nocera says, “Now, we know what works in terms of chemistry. One of the important next things will be to continue to tune the system, to make it go faster and better. This puts us on a fast technological path.”

Danel Nocera in the lab. Image Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT. Click image for the largest view.

Nocera is one very bright guy working with some very bright students and researchers.  Collection or harvesting energy efficiently and effectively at affordable investment and operating expense is getting better every day.  The storage matter of moving from productive times as solar, wind and others simply work to the convenience of using energy when human life has its needs is essential for modern life.

Just how this compares in expense to get energized work done compared to geothermal, fission nuclear, perhaps fusion and BlackLight where the transmission grid investment is already sunk and amortizing . . . is an economic matters for consumers and very likely a policy matter for taxpayers and politicians.  Nocera’s innovations have to come to market at very low cost.


13 Comments so far

  1. greg on May 15, 2010 11:35 AM

    one thing that i don’t understand about solar, is isn’t solar energy going to increase global warming since it reduces the reflectivity of the planet? isn’t our planet becoming more energy dense as it gets hotter. and isn’t nuclear energy effectively a form of solar storage since the isotopes were created by solar radiation?

  2. Anonymous on May 17, 2010 1:27 PM

    ‘Additionally the other electrode, which produces hydrogen, included the use of a relatively expensive platinum catalyst. But in further work, “we have totally gotten rid of the platinum of the hydrogen side,” Nocera says. “That’s no longer a concern for us,” he says, although that part of the research has not yet been formally reported via a paper. That will be news as well.’

    Nocera talks about the hydrogen electrode at around 55:00 in the video below. He says it’s a simple, cheap alloy, and that it really wasn’t a difficult discovery.


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