MIT Researchers Take Solar Power Where the Sun Doesn't Shine

Researchers at MIT announced last week that they've cracked the solar power nut by finding a method to squirrel away energy for use when the sun isn't shining. Unlike existing techniques, this new one is efficient, inexpensive, and clean, researchers said, relying on resources that are abundant and lend themselves to easy manufacture.

In fact, said Daniel Nocera, Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and principal investigator for the Solar Revolution Project, the process is so simple that it can be accomplished using a glass of water at room temperature.

Along with postdoctoral fellow Matthew Kanan, Nocera developed a method that uses solar power to split water into its component elements--a process inspired by photosynthesis in plants--which can then be recombined later in a fuel cell to produce electricity.

An MIT news report described the catalyst for the process this way: "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 program, part of the MIT Energy Initiative, was funded by the NSF and the Chesonis Family Foundation, which, according to information released by the university, donated $10 million to MIT in the spring for the Solar Revolution Project.

Further information, including a video showing the process in action, can be found here. A paper describing the work appears in the current issue of Science.

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Executive Producer David Nagel heads up the editorial department for 1105 Media's education publications — which include two daily sites, a variety of newsletters and two monthly digital magazines covering technology in both K-12 and higher education.

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