Splitting Water to Store Solar Energy
MIT professor Daniel Nocera earlier worked on a catalysts that can divide water molecules which can be utilized to store energy. Daniel Nocera has established a company named as Sun Catalytix to give his dreams a concrete shape. His company is backed by venture capital firm Polaris Ventures. Nocera is known as a “huge centralized energy person.” When he thought about the problems faced by developed and developing world then formed the view that the solution to energy problem lies in cheap energy generation. Sun Catalytix is working on an advanced system that will use low-cost solar panels to produce hydrogen. This hydrogen will then be stored and used to produce electricity in a fuel cell.
The star of Sun Catalytix’s technology is a cobalt phosphate catalyst. Nocera pointed out that cobalt phosphate is more efficient at splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen than other catalysts. Its USP is this catalyst will work under ambient temperatures and with a wide range of water quality. His laboratory has got water samples from the Charles River in Boston and it worked well. Many commercial electrolyzers are available in the market that split water to make hydrogen. But their main drawbacks are they are costly and they need lots of energy to run. Nocera’s Sun Catalytix is testing an electroylzer, built around the catalyst that can be produced using cheap PVC plastic. The crux of the matter is to exploit solar panels to power the electrolyzer to produce hydrogen. This hydrogen would be stored in tanks. Whenever the need arises, the stored hydrogen would be put through a fuel cell.
According to Nocera three liters of water a day could power a home, or a fuel cell car in the “legacy world,” or developed countries. These countries hold a record of high consumption of electricity. But if we consider the case of developing countries where people don’t have much energy to use three liters would make a world of a difference. Three liters would fulfill the power needs of many people. He is talking about the future scenario of the world, “The solution, assuming the legacy world does the right thing (and uses energy efficiently), to this problem for the future is attacking the non-legacy world and they don’t have any money. That’s the challenge.”
Nocera declares his enthusiasm to the world, “This technology is moving really fast. We’re already at the engineering prototype design. I’m hiring no scientists–I’m just having a massive engineering effort right now. Within two years, we want to have a totally working kilowatt system.” Nocera attended the EmTech conference on emerging technologies last week, and said that engineers are now working on a model design for the system. His company has also roped in Art Goldstein as Chairman who was the retired CEO of water desalination company Ionics.
Researchers are currently trying to minimize the size of the large-scale systems as happened during the evolution of computers. But shrinking of size will not shrink the costs of production. Nocera didn’t see much evolution as far as batteries are concerned but he is quite optimistic regarding fuel cells. “What you need in my opinion is to start with a blank piece of paper and start inventing. Don’t take what’s there and try to reengineer it.”
For the full commercialization of this product common consumer has to wait for eight or ten years. They have to tie many loose ends such as hydrogen storage, cheaper solar panels, and cheaper fuel cells.