Daniel G. Nocera of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the inventor of the most important solar energy system of the century. His 2007 designed system is able to create cheap solar energy based on the photosynthesis process. His work was published last year in Science.
Nocera’s company called Sun Catalytix is one of the 37 ARPA-E awardees last month, receiving $4.1 million for further investigations and development from the U.S. Department of Energy. Polaris Venture Partners has also come with a $3 million investment.
An electrode takes the place of the catalyst which is immersed into water containing cobalt and phosphate. When electricity enters the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate create a film over it, forming a catalyst. This catalyst separates the oxygen molecules from the hydrogen ones. A platinum catalyst is used to convert the hydrogen molecules into hydrogen gas. Hydrogen can be used to power fuel cells which can be used in various applications. The central idea is to use sunlight to enable the chemical reactions. Then the technology will be integrated with solar panels or wind turbines to store energy in liquid or gas fuels which are more energy-dense than the batteries traditionally used for energy storage.
Nocera thinks that this process can be used by each of us at home. The solar panels can power easily the house by day and the stored hydrogen could be used to get electricity at night with a fuel cell. The Sun Catalytix electrolyzer is designed to be made with cheap materials and to work in every water environment. It can even work with dirty or salt water but not with antifreeze.
In order to make the system cheaper, platinum must be replaced by another catalyst. Even though there’s still a lot of work to do, the scientists are on the track to have the system implemented soon.