Artificial photosynthesis could make national grid a “thing of the past”

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Researchers at MIT have developed a method of storing energy that could make solar power so efficient that “electricity-by-wire from a central source could be a thing of the past.”

Nocera and Matthew Kanan developed a catalyst which produces oxygen and hydrogen from water when electricity is run through an electrode, mimicking photosynthesis at room temperature with common materials. Though it works with any power source, its application is perfect for converting the sun’s energy to fuel. From Physorg:

“This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind,” said Barber, the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London. “The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem.”

Although similar technologies already exist, they are expensive and require lab-like conditions to operate.

Photo: MIT/NSF

Scientists mimic essence of plants’ energy storage system [PhysOrg]

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17 Responses to Artificial photosynthesis could make national grid a “thing of the past”

  1. Ian says:

    Artificial photosynthesis? I think not. At what point does this synthesise anything? Photosynthesis means “light + carbon dioxide + water = sugars”. If anything, this is indirect photocatabolism as it does not synthesise, i.e. make a more complex, anything but catabolises, i.e. breaks down into simpler substances.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s all about EFFICIENCY, people. This new method is vastly more efficient at making hydrogen. Efficiency of making an easily (relatively) storable energy source is one of the holy grails of energy independence. If this technology is widely implemented, it will remove some homes, at least partly, from reliance on the grid. That’s pretty much how it should work. Of course, if the technology is usurped by Big Oil, it will be headed down the typical dead end street, and quietly killed. The publishing of this material this early is a good sign, in my opinion. So many times, press releases that sound optimistic at first, end with, “we’ll be able to develop this into a viable system in the next ten years”, and then the technology quietly vanishes. This has real promise, people. Don’t be a hater. (I can’t believe I just said that) Get on board!

  3. Bill Barth says:

    Ummm….The described method requires electricity to create hydrogen and oxygen from water (i.e. it’s electrolysis). That power still comes from somewhere, and given that I can’t go completely off the grid with solar cells and wind turbines at my house, I don’t see how this energy storage (that’s what making and burning (fuel cell or combustion) hydrogen is) mechanism is going to solve anything.

  4. monstrinho_do_biscoito says:

    the more i read this, the less sense it makes.

    photsynthesis is generating chemical power from sunlight. where does the sunlight come into this invention?

    hydrogen is usually made (for human purposes) by seperating water into hydrogen and oxygen. but it always takes more energy to split the water than you get from burning the hydrogen, due to the laws of theromdynamics.

    what does this thing actually do that hasn’t been done before? what’s the innovation?

    i’m not being sarcastic or facesious, i genuinly want to know if someone can enlighten me.

  5. nerdcoreblog says:

    >That power still comes from somewhere
    >where does the sunlight come into this invention?

    The Photosynthesis is powered by the electricity that comes from the solar-cells, one is totally independend from extern power-sources.

  6. monstrinho_do_biscoito says:

    after reading the attached artcle, i think i get it. it basicly functions as a big rechargable battery but with more processes within which to lose energy.

    solar panel -> water splitter -> fuel cell -> power

    as opposed to

    solar panel -> rechargable battery or capasitor -> power

  7. Moon says:

    It seems like the advantage to this is in the efficiency of the conversion of water to Hydrogen and Oxygen.

    Because you would be able to make that conversion with electricity generated from solar, as well. It just wouldn’t be efficient.

    Either that, or the writer of this article is leaving out a ton of info.

  8. Moon says:

    @ #9, CERTRON, they do that very thing in California. They pump water uphill at night and then use the energy generated by the water to power turbines during the day.

  9. airship says:

    Uh…

    (1) Put salt in water.
    (2) Put electrodes from solar cell array into water.
    (3) Generate hydrogen and oxygen.
    (4) Capture in inverted jars.
    (5) Profit!

    It just doesn’t get much simpler than that, folks.

  10. mdhatter says:

    Airship for the win!

    Also, Photosynthesis does split Water. The O2 goes into the air, and the 2H’s go onto a nearby carbon, to make a carbohydrate.

  11. stratosfyr says:

    So, is the advantage here over ordinary electrolysis a better catalyst? Arrangement of components?

    Anyway, kudos to them if they make it all efficient enough to be worthwhile.

  12. long-orange-arms says:

    Has anyone commenting on this actually read the primary article in Science?

    Here is the abstact:

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/1162018

    I’ll only be able to read it once it comes into the print edition, but it simply looks like another incremental step in improving the conversion of water into hydrogen and oxygen. Useful sure, but not world changing in itself.

    The boingboing discussion thread is miles better than the gibberish on PhysOrg that’s linked, but I think a lot of the discussion about efficiency, storage etc misses the point of the authors original article.

    It’s a shame PhysOrg had to be so tabloid about the whole thing

  13. bardfinn says:

    From the story’s leader line:

    … Storing energy for use when the sun doesn’t shine.

    Electricity doesn’t travel well – there are losses as it is transmitted over distances. We could have a great big solar cakewalk in the middle of Nevada, but the electricity wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. We already have a great big Hydrothermal cake walk in the middle of the American Southwest, and to put it to good use we had to build Las Vegas and Area 51.

    Storing electricity sucks, too, because batteries have losses while charging, while discharging, and while storing, and are generally toxic.

    Hydrogen storage and transport requires little better technology than what is necessary to make a propane tank, or acetylene tank, or petrochemical pipeline.

  14. certron says:

    While this might be slightly off-topic, since it doesn’t concern electrolysis, fuel cells, hydrogen or oxygen, does anyone else remember hearing about garbage trucks that used compressed air for some power storage? I can’t find anything about it, only compressed natural gas.

    I have an idea, please tell me why (else) it wouldn’t work or be efficient: use the excess power during the day to pump a non-evaporative fluid into an elevated holding tank and allow it to drain through a generator of some kind during the night. I think the idea is sound, the only problem is that I fear the liquid involved would be more than the volume of the house it was meant to power.

  15. wurp says:

    The point is that this is a significantly more efficient and vastly more environmentally sound way of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

    Just splitting salt water with electricity (ignoring the difficulty of building electrodes that do the job efficiently) produces sodium hydroxide and chlorine gas as well as hydrogen. If you want to store energy rather than make industrial chemicals, that’s not the way to go.

    As to this being unfavorably compared to batteries, you’re ignoring how batteries work. Essentially the same process happens inside batteries (electricity drives some chemical reaction on the way in, the reverse chemical reaction produces electricity on the way out). The difference is that this battery involves no toxic chemicals, and apparently is much more efficient.

    Of course, it probably also is much larger until we can come up with better ways to store hydrogen at high density, but that’s not particularly important for the application they’re driving at – powering your home off the grid.

  16. dculberson says:

    Science is a good enough journal that I would say this is probably a significant development.

  17. Anonymous says:

    That’s all fine and dandy, but what happens when there is no more sun?

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