The sun gives the Earth enough energy in one hour, which if tapped completely can fulfill our energy needs for a year. This is perhaps the motivation which drives researchers to look towards the solar orb for cheap sustainable energy. Research progresses with each day but the Gordian knot of solar energy has remained our inability to store it for future use.
Now, a research team may have just unravelled it. Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera’s lab have developed a technology which portends glad tidings for the use of abundant solar power.
Storing solar energy for later use has been an uneconomical and inefficient process till date, but with their photosynthesis mimicking process the glimpse of a novel solution can be seen. Professor Daniel Nocera says,” This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years. Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”
Their process relies on the sun’s energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The oxygen and hydrogen can be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating electricity to power our devices. The use of clean solar energy ensures a carbon free production cycle. The ingenious process revolves around the use of two catalysts.
The catalyst of cobalt metal combined with phosphate and an electrode is placed in water and electricity sourced from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source is used to power up the electrovoltaic reaction. The cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced from water. In tandem with a platinum electrode which is used to produce hydrogen from water, the photosynthetic reaction of plants is duplicated.
The splitting reaction is not the only inventive part but the very fact that the reaction takes place at room temperature, in neutral pH water and is easy to set up, takes this experiment from the arcane laboratories to the backyard of real world possibilities.
Current artificial water electrolysers are expensive fabrications and are overtly complicated for widespread use. But this new innovation is being hailed as a watershed in man’s continuing quest to tap nature’s resources for a sustainable future.
Professor Nocera predicts that within 10 years we might see real world applications of this technology at our doorsteps. Homeowners would have their own power setups using photovoltaic fuel cells based on his pioneering work. They can then perhaps live off the grid. A beginning towards that has definitely been made.
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