Two of the most difficult issues with solar power are generating power when there is little or no sun and storing the energy generated by solar panels for later use. Traditionally batteries have been used to store electricity generated by solar panels for later use when it’s dark or on days when there isn’t sufficient sunlight to generate more electricity from solar panels. Now, however, two researchers at MIT have developed a novel and simple method to store the energy generated by solar panels as well as provide power when there is insufficient sunlight or it’s dark.

The method is based on the idea of photosynthesis. As explained here by Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT, the process utilizes a catalyst consisting of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode along with electricity generated by solar panels to take water and extract oxygen gas from it. Using another catalyst like platinum which can produce hydrogen gas from water the system mimics the water-splitting reaction which photosynthesis performs in plants. (Trafton, Anne, “‘Major discovery’ from MIT primed to unleash solar revolution“, MIT News, July 31, 2008 ) The process is simple, runs in neutral pH water (whereas most of the current fuel cells that use a similar technology require a very basic pH water environment), and works at room temperature.

This represents a giant leap for solar energy and could easily lead to a day in the near-future where the majority of homes in the world could not only generate their own electricity but efficiently store that energy for use during night time hours or during low sunlight periods. The sun shines enough light on the earth in 1 hour to provide for the entire planet’s energy needs for 1 year! With breakthrough’s like this the mainstreaming of solar power becomes much more feasible and affordable and much more efficient.

Kudos to Dr. Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow working in Dr. Nocera’s lab at MIT! Well done!

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