Scientists claim solar energy breakthrough

A team of scientists say they have found a revolutionary way to harness solar power so that its energy can be stored for use when the sun is not shining.

The process – which the researchers say is simple and inexpensive, but highly efficient – was inspired by the way plants store energy from photosynthesis.

Using the sun’s energy, the process splits water into hydrogen and oxygen gases which can later be recombined in a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity at any time of day.

The two scientists, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, say their discovery could unlock the potential of solar power on a massive scale.

MIT Professor Daniel Nocera and postdoctoral fellow Matthew Kanan said the key component in the process is a new catalyst consisting of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode. When electricity is run through the electrode, it produces oxygen gas from water.

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

“Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution,” Professor Nocera said. “Now we can seriously think about solar power an unlimited and soon.”

The pair said it the benefits of their process are that it works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, using non-toxic, abundant materials, and is easy to set up.

“That’s why I know this is going to work. It’s so easy to implement,” Professor Nocera added.

The discovery has been backed by scientists in the UK.

James Barber, a biochemistry Professor at Imperial College, London, and leading authority on photosynthesis, said: “The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production.”

Professor Nocera said he believed that further study would make it possible to integrate his discovery with existing photovoltaic systems.

Within 10 years, he said, homeowners could be powering their homes with PV cells in daylight, while using excess solar energy to power their own household fuel cell to use outside daylight hours.

Watch Professor Nocera explain the process below.

Kate Martin

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