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MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera has devised a novel way of storing solar power using inexpensive materials. He says its the first step to creating a hydrogen generating synthetic "plant", critics say his claims are overstated.   (Source: Christopher Harting )

Professor Nocera imagines a system where solar panels or articial leaves collect solar energy and turn it tinto electricity. From there his catalyst would use the electricity to split water, forming hydrogen fuel.  (Source: Bryan Christie )

Professor Nocera's novel system for hydrogen generation uses cobalt, an inexpensive catalyst previously dismissed due to its high solubility.  (Source: Bryan Christie )
Is Professor Nocera's solar brew a savior or a wishful thinking?

Solar power's efficiency is advancing at a steady rate, and with improvement such as concentrated cells and novel materials the question is not so much if solar can be cheaper than coal power someday, but rather when.  However, when this scenario does eventually arise, solar faces some remaining challenges, the most significant of which is the intermittent nature of the power source. 

In short, without something to store solar power efficiently, it’s infeasible as a primary electric power source.

Batteries and ultracapacitors are frequently discussed as possible means of solar power storage, but they are very expensive.  Other novel storage methods have also been explored, but they seem uncertain prospects at best.  Some scientists point out that there is already a system that takes solar power and stores it -- photosynthesis in plants.

When it comes to imitating nature's hydrogen producing system (remember, sugar is only the secondary product of photosynthesis, driven by the production of the primary product -- hydrogen ions -- from using sunlight's energy to split water), many scientists have tried.  However, the electrocatalysts needed to split water into hydrogen and oxygen are typically even more pricey than batteries.  However, one MIT professor has discovered a possible alternative using cheap materials that he says may help keep the dream of solar power (and solar storage) alive.

Daniel Nocera PhD, a professor of chemistry at MIT, devised a catalyst system using strips of cobalt, nickel, and phosphate, all relatively inexpensive chemical compounds.  By eschewing expensive catalysts like platinum, the cost of the system is kept low.  So why didn't others think of this efficient system?  Well, he says that it is commonly known that cobalt dissolves relatively easy in water, making it typically a poor electrode material, and typically earning it a quick dismissal.  To remedy this, Professor Nocera chose a somewhat creative approach, instead adding dissolved cobalt directly to the solvent and relying on a thin cobalt film which formed on the electrode.

The success of the result surprised even its creator.  He describes, "Here's the luck.  There was no reason for us to expect that just plain cobalt with phosphate, versus cobalt being tied up in one of our complexes, would work this well. I couldn't have predicted it. The stuff that was falling out of the compounds turned out to be what we needed."

Now he is looking to improve upon his lucky break.  He states, "Now we want to understand it.  I want to know why the hell cobalt in this thin film is so active. I may be able to improve it or use a different metal that's better."

However, he also wants to move towards a production system.  He states, confidently, "We were really interested in the basic science. Can we make a catalyst that works efficiently under the conditions of photosynthesis?  The answer now is yes, we can do that. Now we've really got to get to the technology of designing a cell. "

Some are skeptical about Professor Nocera's big claims.  They say that his system is cheap and promising in some respects, but that he is overstating its potential for commercial scale hydrogen production.  By an important metric, the peak efficiency current density (the higher this number, the faster the rate of hydrolysis), his best reported result of 10 milliamps per square centimeter is only a hundredth of the current commercial electrolyzer rate of 1000 milliamps per square centimeter.

Even one of his teachers is taking issue to Professor Nocera's alleged hyperbole; Thomas Meyer, who has been a mentor to Nocera, states, "The claim that this is the answer for artificial photosynthesis is crazy.  [This] could prove technologically important [as a] research finding, [but]  there's no guarantee that it can be scaled up or even made practical."

John Turner, a research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, adds, "At least what he's published so far would never work for a commercial electrolyzer, where the current density is 800 times to 2,000 times greater."

While some say he is wasting his time and should refocus on batteries, Professor Nocera continues his research and his big talk.  He's teaming up with Professor Michael Grätzel of the  École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland to make a full solar cell and catalyst system which produces hydrogen.  Professor Grätzel invented a unique dye that gives off electrons when exposed to sunlight.  Professor Nocera hopes to merge the two inventions to create an artificial, fuel-generating leaf, what he sees as the future of electric power generation.

One thing's for sure -- Professor Nocera's work and rhetoric will likely continue to draw rebukes from colleagues, but it’s hard to argue the temptation of emulating nature's most successful energy fixing design and storing power by a simple equation -- "sun + water = fuel".

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RE: So...
By nstott on 11/26/2008 2:06:13 AM , Rating: 1
Companies and venture capitalists risk money on new technologies without government subsidies because they have hope for profit in the future. This also promotes less money being waisted on corporate R&D that show little promise of economic feasibility. Free market capitalism has been the greatest economic force for technological innovation and advancement more so than any other.

Oil and coal did have competition as energy sources when they appeared. For example, windmills were around long before oil and coal were used for power. Windmills were replaced because oil and coal had certain advantages.

I blame crypto-communist educators who teach patently false versions of history and economics. It seems you could use some lessons from ringold and masher.

RE: So...
By nstott on 11/26/2008 2:37:24 AM , Rating: 2
On second thought: oil and coal compared to wind used as a power source was probably a sticky example to bring up. Windmills were used for pumping water and grinding grain before oil and coal were used in steam engines, but coal has been used to heat for much longer. Both fossil fuel-powered steam engines and windmills were used to generate electricity around the same time after the invention of the electric motor, so that is perhaps a better example. Fossil fuels were chosen over wind for electrical power generation due to certain advantages.

RE: So...
By Lugaidster on 11/26/2008 9:20:07 AM , Rating: 2
While most of the time I would agree with you, this just isn't the case. If you hadn't non-profit organizations working on nuclear fusion power generation we wouldn't know anything of it. There are alternatives that need time, time that investors aren't willing to wait in light of better immediate alternatives.

You might have more knowledge on the subject, and I do agree that I could use a little reading on certain principles. But you still have to see that sometimes you do need subsidies. I just believe that for some technologies, that is the case.

You do have to remember that oil and coal have hundreds of year in the market and they have the backup of multi-million dollar companies. Usually, these companies would rather put money on lobbists pockets to convince that you need nothing more than use it to research alternatives.

RE: So...
By Ringold on 11/26/2008 4:50:04 PM , Rating: 2
You bring up fusion; thats one thing. Government money pretty much has to be involved in development of technologies with no hope for profit for decades on in to the future.

However, you can argue as much as you want about renewable energy subsidies. The fact is that some entrepeneurs and people running existing and growing renewable energy firms (such as solar panel manufacturers or a wind turbine manufacturer) are already on the record denouncing the subsidies. They point out that profitability for some companies has already been attained, private investors are already happily giving them billions of dollars, and that subsidies at this point merely prop up weak competitors instead of allowing the true winners to rise to the top. Silly things also end up happening, like Germany installing tons of solar panels, raising global costs and keeping much sunnier locations from expanding as much themselves. Thats of course predictable; government intervention always leads to misallocation of resources.

It also doesn't matter that much how long coal and oil has been around. All that matters is cost. Beat coal, and do so while also performing in other key areas of consideration (such as reliability, etc), and in the long run it doesn't matter how long a company has been around. Google's running circles around Microsoft, it didn't matter that Google only recently got the governments ear. All that matters is that its search engine is more pleasing.

Not sure why it matters how "big" oil companies are. First of all, many of them have business units making break throughs in various renewable technologies themselves. Second of all, the road of history is littered with former giants rendered by young upstarts.

You also say not to blame the subsidies but instead the subsidizers for not picking the proper winner.. Here, you show you fundamentally don't understand what process the free market is meant to carry out. It's impossible to pick the proper winner ahead of time. The market is the ultimate acid test at determining what most efficiently meets the needs of the market. That's the basic advantage of free markets.. Instead of a government committee trying to understand everything about every business, relationships between them, needs, wants, products, etc, decision making is instead distributed.

RE: So...
By nstott on 11/26/2008 7:18:30 PM , Rating: 2
I'm all for funding R&D through government grants, which includes research on nuclear fusion. I'm against government subsidies to prop up companies selling products that are not profitable (Although I think tax breaks for developing businesses are good). Research grants and subsidies are not the same thing.

Many fossil fuel companies also spend a lot of R&D on alternative energies. Energy is energy to them. Once it becomes profitable, energy companies want to make money off of it.

Oil Companies Promote Alternative Energy

Shell Quadruples Renewable Energy Project Spending

BP: Alternative Energy

Oh, and all of the oil lobbyists explain why we've been drilling in ANWR. Oh yeah, we haven't been...

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