Breakthrough In Water Based Energy Storage

[Daniel Nocera], working with the MIT Energy Initiative, has come up with a method to easily and cheaply store energy generated from solar electricity with water. The method uses two catalysts of non-toxic and abundant metals to separate the water into both oxygen and hydrogen. These gases are then stored, and later recombined in a fuel cell to generate power. The process was inspired by photosynthesis, and helps to make sources such as solar power viable around the clock. Current storage technologies are both expensive and inefficient, so technologies like solar are only useful when the source is available. This will allow homes to cheaply and easily store power generated through solar and other technologies. While this is only part of the solution towards the current energy problem, it could go a long way towards decreasing our use of non-renewable sources. When combined with other new breakthroughs in the field, you can easily imagine more homes coming off the grid. Check out the short video after the break.

43 thoughts on “Breakthrough In Water Based Energy Storage

  1. Yeah, but how do large companies make a profit? (end sarcasm.) I believe Nikola Tesla had an idea of transmitting free energy, though, I could not see that ever happening as no one can make a profit out of “free.”

  2. Needs more details, eh? Still pretty cool though.

    I think I’d keep those “basement bombs” in an adjacent shed or something. I’d hate to have an hydrogen / oxygen containment problem next to the water heater…

  3. Logically, this must be different from what you can do easily with two electrodes of any metal, salt water, and a few solar cells. This is MIT, they wouldn’t publish something trivial as a great discovery.

    I imagine the catalysts are what is interesting. Do they lower the voltage required to get hydrolysis going strong? I mean, we all know that in thermodynamics there is no free lunch, but increased efficiency is nice.

    Also this isn’t very similar to the way a plant stores energy. If I remember right, you knock an electron loose out of chlorophyll, use a series of intermediary proteins to carry that energy along, store it temporarily as ATP, then eventually it is used to fix carbon using a terribly inefficient protein, named rubicose I think. Something like 99% of the energy is lost to the many intermediate stages between energy absorption and storage, I hope they can do better.

    I read the article, watched the video… but still don’t see the great breakthrough. Can someone clear it up? I must be missing something.

  4. How much of a breakthrough is this? I guess I have to give credit because the speaker made it seem as though the entire process was completely thought out and made very feasible – which seems to be the big accomplishment and is good to know that people are focusing on the practical aspects – but what about the storing of hydrogen and oxygen? They’re still highly flammable gases, so what’s the solution there? It seems to me like the classic fuel cell problems haven’t been solved, but I do like the idea of storing energy.

    However, I just don’t see it working – how is it possible for the solar panels to generate enough energy to power the house, but then the cells will be able to power the house alone? It seems like this entire thing is based on the premise that a considerable amount of energy is coming from the solar panels, which is another unsolved problem.

  5. You failed to post the crucial part from the original link:

    “The key component in Nocera and Kanan’s new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity — whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source — runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.

    Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.

    The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it’s easy to set up, Nocera said. “That’s why I know this is going to work. It’s so easy to implement,” he said.”

  6. Personally I’d like to see more experimentation to make more efficient and user friendly methods of hydrolysis.
    Like hook up some solar panels to a battery for use with a hydroxy generator for vehicles or even just more publication.

  7. @ mike:

    The issue is that it is trivial to perform electrolysis at room temperature, in pH neutral water. Drop a 9v battery in a clear glass of salted water and watch. You will (slowly) get hydrogen gas. Oxygen you may not get depending on what battery leads are made of… you may just get some corrosion, and in any case most of the energy is lost as heat (salt water conducts).

    Which gets me back to those catalysts! I’ll see if they published anything about that in a peer-reviewed journal.

  8. its funny how big schools and businesses assume that standard consumers fueled by higher gas prices, although not quite as educated, but testing in larger masses, havent already thought of an idea like this. awefully pretentious. Conservation of energy also comes into play. If im generating these massive amounts of electricity from water that is split by the sun(essentially), then cant I just put that large amount of electricity back into the water to produce more gas,to produce more electricity to produce more gas???? not gonna work.

  9. I could ‘discover’ the word ‘nob’ by taking the letters ‘n’, ‘o’ and ‘b’ and joining them together.

    When you consider ‘n’ = Solar Panels, ‘o’ = Electrolysis and ‘b’ = Fuel Cells, ‘nob’ equals the/’their’, ‘discovery’.

    The conclusion, maybe they have invented a novel method of electrolysis that has advantages, but they need to state that and stop claiming to be ‘nob’ enthusiasts.

  10. I’m confused by this article. It makes it sound like electrolysis of water is some major breakthrough… but the article is written in typical pop-science hand waving language so it’s hard to penetrate their dubious analogies to see what the new big thing is.

    This article
    “When sunlight strikes the artificial photosynthesis device, high-energy photons will split water into hydrogen and oxygen.”

    The text of that article implies that the cobalt/phosphate catalyst uses something more like the photoelectric effect to catalytically split water, and the electricity usage is to make the active part of the catalyst migrate to the electrode surface to provide an active site or something like that.

    If that’s not the case, then presumably the catalyst makes “vanilla” electrolysis more efficient, possibly reducing the need for an electrolyte (they mention ph-neutral water being nicer than traditional high-ph electrolyte) which would make the system more accessible to home users. If that’s the case, the car-engine-HHO-generator crowd should be happy :)

    Whatever the actual case is, these articles really don’t make it clear and seem to be more like hype-only press releases than scientific articles. Has anyone found a link to the papers or write-up of this project? That might shed some more light (ho ho) on the subject.

  11. Having read this in several other articles which were more detailed yesterday, I can pass along that what makes this a big deal is the cost. The new catalyst choice brings the overall cost of the reaction way way down. Traditionally, it has been mostly Platinum that was used which is crazy expensive. Not using Platinum meant using much more electricity. The cost in energy was as high as what you got out of the process. The belief is that using this new catalyst (which in every other article I’ve read claims to replace all of the platinum, not just some of it) bring the cost down to pocket change while also reducing the energy cost of splitting the hydrogen and oxygen.

    A similar discover has been made on the other side — on the fuel cell — where the gas is re-combined. This is a different team and a different material but the effect is the same in terms of potentially getting as efficient a catalyst effect as platinum with a drastically lower cost material. Reading these articles I got the impression that this second team is less far along in terms of a workable production model than the MIT team is with theirs.

  12. You know, whenever I hear of things like this, I also hear it scares the big power companies. Why don’t they just embrace it? They could use this tech to provide power to everyone, and not have to worry about their coal or oil supply running out. They can still make their money, since most people won’t want to deal with the tech issues behind implementing this in their own home and fixing any issues that arise once in a while when a part needs to be replaced.

  13. This is an interesting idea. Too bad some people on this board just don’t get it.

    As to the poste touting conservation of energy, no one is creating free energy here. It all came from the sun. The extra juice from the PV cells seperates water into Hydrogen and Oxygen (the storage mechanism). At night, the process is reversed through the fuel cell, generating electricity in the process, and the by-product of water is reclaimed, ready to start the cycle again the next day. Pretty simple concept actually.

    The concept isn’t new and MIT isn’t the first to think of this. However, what MIT has done, it seems, is come up with a new type of electrode which, as others have pointed out, reduces the cost significantly. Now, if we could only reduce the cost of the solar cells. =)

  14. @17 – The “big power” companies have been working hard to turn themselves into “big energy” companies that are going to do very well regardless of which energy source we use. In some areas, power “delivery” has been split from power “supply” — what used to be our local power company is now just paid for delivery of power (lines, billing, safety, integration with the grid, etc.) and the bill includes a power “supply” portion as well. In theory we can specify where we want to buy “our” power supply from. This could be “cheapest supplier” or it could be a few percent higher if we pick a “green” supplier or whatever.

    I’m not sure how they sort those electrons to make sure I only get the ones I ordered and my neighbor doesn’t get my more expensive ones instead of me (kidding).

    The only way the big energy companies will loose out is if on-site power supply becomes the norm. That would mean individuals with their own Mr. Fusion or their own hydrogen fuel separator processes. I don’t see either is economically likely. There will be a very big industry in both the “packaging” of engery (hydrogen extraction, oil refinement, cellulosic bioreactors, nuclear fission, geothermal, or large scale solar and wind) and power “delivery” (power lines, oil trucks, gas stations) for the foreseeable future.

  15. A guy in new jersey did this exact same thing. check it out at its in the public access section entitled “hydrogen house”. he used traditional electrolysis, which it seems, is far less efficient than this newer method. thats the break through, efficiency. And how can people say there is no money in this. The big energy companies might loose, but the contractors and manufactures related to this system win. And if you did this on a large enough scale, couldn’t you sell the electricity?

    The technology will probably first appeal mostly to green types who want to disconnect from non-renewable sources. once the technology is proven, other will follow. Think of it as paying rent and buying a home. Paying rent is like buying energy from the electric company, you just keep paying and you end up with nothing in the end. making an investment in a home, or a system such as this, is something tangible that you have even after you buy it, it’s yours and it will probably end up saving you money.

  16. Thanks, hackaday, for referring to this as energy *storage* – I’m sick of all these “water fuel cars” and the like that keep getting news coverage, making people think electrolysis is anything but a method of storing energy you already have.

  17. Fuel Cells are expensive. Why not just run a conventional electric generator with the hydrogen and oxygen. I don’t know if anyone has checked the prices on fuel cells lately… but they are really expensive and made out of not so common or cheap metals.

    $100k fuel cell or $5k converted generator…

  18. Nobody is saying it’s a “revolution”, it’s an “evolution”. I read a few of the links posted a few comments back, and it looks like the big difference is that in “traditional” electrolysis, a) the electrodes were consumed over time, as the process moved atoms from one to the other, b) some of the oxygen was used up corroding electrodes, rather than being captures, and c) a fair amount of the energy put in was lost as heat.

    The “breakthrough” is really just a refinement of the process. Since both electrodes are “conducting glass” (WTF?), and the actual reaction takes place on a thin film of catalyst, they are never consumed, which reduces upkeep costs. Likewise, neither the glass nor the catalyst can oxidize, so you’re not wasting any O2. And I guess the biggest deal is that there’s a lot less non-productive energy (i.e. lost as heat). I’m less interested in the applications of in-home energy storage and more interested in how this will impact the move to hydrogen cars — having a reliable source of H2 was always one of the biggest impediments.

  19. This was a great article. I’ve installed a small solar powered system for on off-grid house ( and the 2nd most expensive parts were the batteries for storage of the power. PLUS, these batteries need to be changed every few years. Wow a great alternative this will be once it’s finished.

  20. While it’s true that H2 and O2 are potentially dangerous materials, what makes people think that they can’t be safely stored? Gasoline is also a flammable chemical and has been used to burn house and people so why is it safer?

    There are a lot of flammable and dangerous chemicals and devices already in your home, but for some reason H2 and O2 are extra scary to people. I just don’t get it.

    I supposed when people talk about fuel-cell cars there is some viable reasoning for concern because if you collide two vehicles which are transporting a substantial quantity of any volatile substance you could have trouble. That said, how often do you see people crashing their houses into each other?

  21. Well, regardless of what this posts author left out: I do need to take issue with the idea that batteries are not a practical means to store photovoltaic electricity in off-grid homes- I’ve been doing it for years and know a few people who’ve done it since the early 70s. IMHO deep-cycle lead acid batteries (if steps are taken against sulfated plates) will prove massively preferable to dealing with explosive hydrogen. Ever been in an off-grid home??? Most have electrical setups that would make a code inspector wet himself! Now imagine that when dealing with an explosive gas…

  22. The biggest deals here are a) the low overpotential and b)the ability to work at neutral pH.

    Overpotential is a measure of the extra energy over the theoretical minimum needed to do an electrochemical reaction. In this case, lowering the overpotential means you don’t waste energy you can use to split water. This is where the efficiency gain comes from.

    Most catalysts for oxygen reduction are expensive, or work at high pH, or both. High pH=highly alkaline, which makes the solution dangerous and corrosive. Platinum is expensive. Cobalt phosphate is dirt cheap by comparison.

    As Nocera says, it opens a door. It might be economical, and it might not. It has a much better chance, because it is at neutral pH and low overpotential, than existing electrolysis.

  23. @30:
    The difference is that gasoline can be stored at atmospheric pressure. Not only is hydrogen volatile, but it is much more likely to leak because it is pressurized. Do you think you can put it in a bladder such that, like gasoline, it won’t necessarily leak out even if the tank is crushed? Doubt it. Lots of gasoline makes a slight explosion and then a burn. Lots of hydrogen makes a BIG explosion. Can’t say that either is a desirable situation.

    I’ll bet the cost/benefit still doesn’t beat charging batteries instead of converting to hydrogen/compressing/re-converting to electricity. In autos, it’s crap. For homes, probably a great idea.

  24. Eh, guess I should add, I did rtfa, but the previous post is “why people still don’t think hydrogen can safely be stored.” these are the common arguments that I have used against hydrogen: efficiency and storage.

    these pellet type storage processes negate the storage problem.

  25. Personally I believe that we shouldn’t be wasting our time trying so hard to create a completely new energy delivery system when we ought to be more concerned with the initial production (nitpicky physicists: I mean conversion) of energy to something we already use. We don’t have that much time left before we run out of petroleum, and we should spend our efforts on getting an interim solution to the bigger problem–production, not storage or transport.

    Bottom line: I say we start building those nuke plants and spend more research into getting all the energy out of that nuclear waste (i.e. reduce the half-life) At the very least that will cut off a huge amount of our pollution, and at the very least we could pull off something with electric cars before you figure out the hydrogen fuel cell nonsense (or find something even better! maybe something that doesn’t just so conveniently have to be a gas at STP!) in the meantime

    Anyway, seriously, I wouldn’t believe any of the crap coming out of the site. There isn’t a single physicist in his right mind who would believe any of that crap. Seriously, lots of those guys are trying to read up on quantum physics without even getting their college level physics straight, and come up with these weird meaningless ideas out of their heads. I wish I had the time to refute all the nonsense they say. . .of course, I agree with their goals (to reduce our dependence on petroleum, reduce CO2, etc) but they always love making it sound SO EASY when energy is a hard problem and needs more *cough* educated people to help solve it. And then there’s the issue of how the education in this country is totally going downhill, but I digress. . .

    Alright, onto the main comment I was going to make: “a year’s worth of energy consumed by us hits the earth every hour” Sounds good at first, but if you think about it, it’s pretty saddening. That means we would need to cover .01% of the earth with 100% efficient solar panels just to meet our CURRENT power needs, not including the however many percent is ALREADY covered by photosynthetic plants. That’s about the size of a small state. Then imagine our power consumption increase 10x, which is pretty reasonable. . . there simply isn’t enough energy on earth to sustain us. We are one very very sad race. . .so perhaps the L factor in Drake’s Equation is really why we haven’t found intelligent life yet–they’re all dead by their own overconsumption.

  26. @28 xeracy: If memory serves, Equinox’ production was funded Exxon, so keep that in mind when you watch it. The oil companies have done very well financially whilst spinning their wheels and dragging out the obvious outcome of our global reliance on fossil fuels.

  27. @37, water molecules are always split two at a time: 2H2O –> 2H2 + O2. Oxygen never exists as just “O”. They call it HHO because that’s just the ratio: 2 hydrogen to 1 oxygen

  28. Mr Kocera: Platinum is a well known catalyst in the Chem industry and its’ price per ounce, currently over $1500 usd, has been spiking recently because of more interest in it. A few months ago it was $2000 usd per ounce. It’s not so easy for the average consumer to use Pt or Co, but what you’re lacking for a true breakthrough is the bio-research in what exactly are the plants and trees “biochemically doing” to store energy.

    The energy that plants store may not be “electrical current” like we use, so then there are enzymes and/or other biomechanisms at work for storing energy. Biochemistry may not be your field, but you could look into bio-research for what you want to accomplish.

    A true breakthrough would be MIT discovering the exact biomechanisms involved in photosynthesis with the biochems listed, such as proteins and enzymes, and then this breakthrough will not require the use of expensive catalysts.

  29. Utter and total bullsh*t, bullsh*t, bullsh*t!!!

    This has been areound for probably 50+ years! Squelched

    many times by big energy/oil and the government! Google

    Joe Brown Cell, and ignore the hype, I have built

    dozens of these and they truly work. This is a semi-reverse

    application of the priciple, but nearly the same

    exact thing.

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