Creating Fuel Cells With Solar Power?

MIT chemists have developed a means to electrolyze water at room temperature with photovoltaic cells.

A new catalyst makes it feasible to split water with solar power.

MIT chemists say the catalyst, used in conjunction with cheap photovoltaic solar panels, could lead to inexpensive, simple systems that use water to store the energy from sunlight.

In the process, the scientists may have cleared the major roadblock on the long road to fossil fuel independence: Reducing the on-again, off-again nature of many renewable power sources.

The catalyst enables the electrolysis system to function efficiently at room temperature and at ordinary pressure. Like a reverse fuel cell, it splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. By recombining the molecules with a standard fuel cell, the O2 and H2 could then be used to generate energy on demand.

It’s still up in the air as to whether this would be cost-effective, given that one of the catalyst components is platinum. Still–one of the things holding back solar is the fact that it can’t generate power continuously. So if these chemists have developed a more effective means of storing solar power, that will go a long way towards making it a more viable form of energy. This is definitely something worth keeping an eye on–especially if the technique can be adapted to less expensive catalysts.

(cross posted to Heretical Ideas)

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Environment, Science & Technology, ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. William d'Inger says:

    Catalyst cost ought not be a problem in and of itself. Platinum is used in catalytic converters in automobile exhaust systems, and the cost is not prohibitive. Since a catalyst is not consumed in a chemical reaction, it only has to coat a supporting substrate one atom thick to do the job. A little platinum goes a long, long way.

    That being said, the solar cell/fuel cell combination with its associated equipment, like inverters to make ac from dc, is going to be outrageously expensive so far into the future that it belongs in the realm of science fiction for anybody alive today.

  2. Jay says:

    William, you said that the tech is “so far into the future that it belongs in the realm of science fiction for anybody alive today.” I think that’s the very same attitude that prevents dreamers from stepping forward. Today’s policies are not for fixing a solution for the long term; rather they are to fix a problem of political expediency.

    Over twenty years ago someone countermanded the effort for more oil exploration and drilling by saying it would not affect prices at the pump. The same is said today. But if nothing is done today for the very reason that today’s problems won’t be fixed immediately, then today’s problems tomorrow will just grow, and grow, and grow.

  3. Michael says:

    That being said, the solar cell/fuel cell combination with its associated equipment, like inverters to make ac from dc, is going to be outrageously expensive so far into the future that it belongs in the realm of science fiction for anybody alive today.

    Maybe we should be making a push to convert our homes to use DC. Large data centers are already realizing a huge energy savings by running only one AC/DC converter to power all their electronic equipment.

  4. Michael says:

    It’s still up in the air as to whether this would be cost-effective, given that one of the catalyst components is platinum.

    Just to clarify, the new catalyst is not Platinum, but rather a combination of Cobalt and Phosphate. Platinum has been used as a catalyst in electrolysis for a while, this new method actually requires less Platinum to be used.

  5. William d'Inger says:

    I remember how elated I was when scientists announced the technological breakthrough that made solar powered houses viable. They had reached the power density, in watts per square meter, wherein the average dwelling could supply all the electricity it needed in an area no bigger than the roof on the house.

    The technology was already out of the lab and undergoing field trials. In 3 – 5 years, it would be commercially available. In 7 – 10 years, mass production would bring the cost down to homeowner affordability. In 15 – 20 years, half of the houses in America would have solar shingle roofs. The shingles would pay for themselves, at prevailing rates for utility supplied electricity, in less than a decade. Thereafter, American homeowners would enjoy abundant, free power for the remainder of eternity.

    That happened when I was in high school. I was in high school 50 years ago. A whole friggin’ half century has passed and probably less than five in a million American homes are powered, entirely off the grid, by solar roofs. For my generation, solar power was/is demonstratively science fiction. I believe the same is/will be true for the current generation.

    I predict that a half century from now, the chance that the average American will be living in a free standing, solar powered house is less than 50/50. You can dream all you want, Jay, but it’s not going to happen. If I am wrong, you have permission to spit on my grave because I surely will never live to see it.

  6. Frank says:

    A plan to reduce the need to import foreign energy. Expand & promote the use of:
    1. A generous tax credit for the installation of solar cells on home rooftops &/or Co-op solar farms in the desert.
    2. A generous tax credit for owning an electric or Hybrid vehicle.
    3. Make Golf Carts street legal, where practical, on streets with 35mph or under speed limits.
    4. There are thousands of streets that could have every other street light turned off without reducing security.
    5. The extensive use of Solar Cells on government buildings to stimulate reducing costs through mass production.
    6. Create a Web Site that lists Park & Ride Sites where commuters can hook up to share transportation to the work place.

  7. Michael says:

    5. The extensive use of Solar Cells on government buildings to stimulate reducing costs through mass production.

    I’ve often wondered why, here in Florida, we don’t have solar panels on our public schools. I mean, they have a lot of roof space, an existing electrical maintenance staff, and almost all of their electrical consumption is during daylight hours.

  8. Jay says:

    William: photovoltaics come with their caveats. The unreliability of the stream of power is the most superficial. Producing them exudes a ridiculous amount of toxic waste. I can only conjecture at why they haven’t caught on, one of which is because it was cheaper at the time to stick to the status quo. I don’t think that the Peak Oil Boogeyman will come knocking in the next ten to twenty years, but it seems like a finite resource.

    There’s plenty of energy-related scifi, anything where it costs more to produce the energy yield falls under this field. And if I’m wrong, my children can spit on my grave coz I know I’m not going to be around to see it happen either way. But I would like to know that somehow someone somewhere is trying to do something about it.

  9. teqjack says:

    Michael beat me to it. One of the reasons (efficiency is the big one) this is getting attention is that the catalyst is NOT platinum, but fairly cheap stuff found all over the place.

    Even if it proves out, though, don’t expect it to show up at the hardware store soon. There is still no cheap way to store the hydrogen and oxygen.

  10. Michael says:

    There’s plenty of energy-related scifi, anything where it costs more to produce the energy yield falls under this field.

    Every source of energy costs more to produce than it yields.

  11. Wayne says:

    “MIT chemists have developed a means to electrolyze water at room temperature with photovoltaic cells”

    That statement made me shake my head at first until I actually read the article. The key difference is the article said “efficiently” which make a great deal of difference.

    I agree that Solar power technologies and constraints are nowhere close to where the need to be. As I have said many times before, due to the power fluctuations of solar if someone could efficiently marry up a storage medium like fuel cells to solar it would greatly advance solar power. They have made some advances in the production and toxic waste byproduct of solar cell but it is not where it needs to be either.

  12. Michael says:

    As I have said many times before, due to the power fluctuations of solar if someone could efficiently marry up a storage medium like fuel cells to solar it would greatly advance solar power.

    You mean like solar thermal? There’s also flywheels and gravity storage, and of course the trusty old battery. Probably you were referring more specifically to a portable storage medium, something you can fit into a car. Personally I like the idea of building hydrocarbons from the free H2 plus atmospheric CO2, easier to store than H2, plus cleans the air when you make it.

  13. Wayne says:

    “Every source of energy costs more to produce than it yields.”

    Surely you are not saying that it takes more barrels of oil to extract and refine it than the number of barrels that one gets out of the process.

    Now it can be said that it takes more to convert oil to electricity then transported and putting in an electric car than if you just converted it to gas and put it in a gasoline engine. Beside the fell good smug facture what good is it to use 1.5 gallons of gas to produce the electricity you need when you could use 1 gallon of gas instead.

  14. Jay says:

    Michael: ah the joys of moonlighting a comment board at work. If I may *ahem* reclaim my honor. The SciFi stuff would be where the costs to produce the really shebangin’ energy are too high to justify the yield. Cold fusion? Totally SciFi for now. “Hot fusion?” Can’t contain that much heat. But we’ve been able to make turbines efficient enough to make the power yield from coal, for example, feasible. I’m fine with that.

    For the record I’m really not digging alternative automobile fuel. I’m more of a grid power junkie.

  15. Michael says:

    Surely you are not saying that it takes more barrels of oil to extract and refine it than the number of barrels that one gets out of the process.

    No, I’m saying it takes more energy to create a barrel of oil than you can extract from a barrel of oil.

    ah the joys of moonlighting a comment board at work.

    That’s what compiling is for.

  16. Michael says:

    Surely you are not saying that it takes more barrels of oil to extract and refine it than the number of barrels that one gets out of the process.

    It’s the curse of thermodynamics, for any conceivable system, the amount of energy output will be less than the amount of energy input.

  17. Jay says:

    Michael: I’m in sales! In an office. I guess I am “working on a quote.”

  18. Wayne says:

    “There’s also flywheels and gravity storage, and of course the trusty old battery”
    Yes but there is the issue of cost efficiency.

    “It’s the curse of thermodynamics, for any conceivable system, the amount of energy output will be less than the amount of energy input.”

    Sound like you are trying to be slick (no pun intended). If I light a can of gunpowder or gas on fire, I will get much more energy than I put in. Now if you take into account all the energy the earth use to make the resources like oil and natural gas, then you may have a point. However as apply to energy resources the proper measurement is how much energy it takes to recover, refine and transport it.

    By the above definition, a net energy gain is achieved by expending less energy acquiring a source of energy than is contained in the source to be consumed. That is,
    NEG = EnergyConsumable − EnergyExpended.

  19. Michael says:

    Yes but there is the issue of cost efficiency.

    In any technology.

    Sound like you are trying to be slick (no pun intended). If I light a can of gunpowder or gas on fire, I will get much more energy than I put in.

    No you won’t. You’ll get an exothermic reaction, but you’ll have the same amount of energy you had in the original can of gunpowder, minus the energy you expended igniting it.

    However as apply to energy resources the proper measurement is how much energy it takes to recover, refine and transport it.

    It’s all a matter of how much energy you have to put in, and how much you get at the cost of someone/something else. In the case of oil, we didn’t pay the cost of creating it, so we get a net positive by burning it. Electrolysis consumes more energy than it can produce, but if the consumed energy comes for free (solar), then we get a net positive.

  20. Wayne says:

    “but you’ll have the same amount of energy you had in the original can of gunpowder”

    But I didn’t put the energy in much of what exist in the can. Nature did most of work. My energy expenditures are roughly the fire I supply and processing cost of a person who process the resources for me.

    Solar and wind energy just like oil is a natural process. The cost of solar energy is in the manufacturing and maintenance of the equipment to convert the energy to something useful. Saying solar is a free energy source is saying oil sources are free. The issue is which process of conversion is most cost effective.

  21. Michael says:

    But I didn’t put the energy in much of what exist in the can. Nature did most of work. My energy expenditures are roughly the fire I supply and processing cost of a person who process the resources for me.

    Quite right, but too often people forget that fact.

    Solar and wind energy just like oil is a natural process. The cost of solar energy is in the manufacturing and maintenance of the equipment to convert the energy to something useful. Saying solar is a free energy source is saying oil sources are free. The issue is which process of conversion is most cost effective.

    That’s one issue, others are the cost of use, and the long term availability.

  22. Wayne says:

    Michael
    I agree with your last post.