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MIT’s major breakthrough: Storing solar energy when the sun doesn’t shine

July 31, 2008

By Jess Zielinski
Photo: Solar hot water panels atop Fenway Park in Boston. By Brian Snyder, Reuters

In the span of an hour, enough sunlight strikes Earth to satisfy the whole planet’s energy requirements for a year. Thanks to MIT research, we now have a way to turn solar power into a major energy source.

Solarxblog330 Researchers there have found a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient way to store energy for use when the sun isn’t shining.

“That’s why I know this is going to work. It’s so easy to implement,” said MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper in Science about the work.

Solar power hasn’t been a large-scale energy solution because storing extra solar energy has been hugely expensive and terribly inefficient up until now.

“This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said Nocera. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”

How’d they do it? They were inspired by the photosynthesis plants do. Nocera and a colleage crafted a process that lets the sun’s energy be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. A water split occurs naturally during photosynthesis. The oxygen and hydrogen can later be recombined inside a fuel cell. Fuel cells make carbon-free electricity to power our gadgets, homes, and electric cars.

Their work employs a new catalyst that works at room temperature in neutral pH water. That’s what makes it so easy to set up.

They still need to do more engineering work to integrate this tech into the photovalic systems we already have, but Nocera predicts that will soon be a reality. He hopes that within a decade, we’ll be able to power our homes in daylight through photovoltaic cells and the solar energy we don’t use will produce hydrogen and oxygen to power a household’s fuel cell.

What could that mean for current power companies? Electricity sent by a central source via wire could one day be like rotary phones.

Nocera’s project was part of the MIT Energy Initiative. It’s a program that aims to improve our energy systems now so we won’t be so strained in the future. The program’s success may be in part attributed to the fact that it relies on mixed funding sources — governmental, philanthropic, and industrial.

This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Chesonis Family Foundation. The foundation gave MIT $10 million this spring to launch the Solar Revolution Project.

It stipulated the goal would be large-scale implementation of solar energy within ten years.

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