One of the interesting side effects of last year's stimulus bill was $400 million in funding for ARPA-E, the civilian, energy-focused cousin of DARPA. And in this week's first ever ARPA-E conference, MIT chemist Dan Nocera showed how well he put that stimulus money to use by highlighting his new photosynthetic process. Using a special catalyst, the process splits water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel efficiently enough to power a home using only sunlight and a bottle of water.
Like organic photosynthesis, Nocera's reaction uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and energy. However, whereas plants create energy in the form of sugars, this process creates energy in the form of free hydrogen. That hydrogen can either be recombined with the oxygen in a fuel cell to generate electricity, or converted into a liquid fuel.
In about four hours, water treated with Nocera's catalyst can produce 30 kilowatt-hours of energy. Moreover, the process is cheap. So cheap, in fact, that Nocera has no problem envisioning a day when each house generates its own fuel and electricity from photosynthesis.
But don't take my word for it. Check out this video and hear Nocera describe this process himself:
wow, thats extremely impressive. if it delivers on the promise, it'll be quite revolutionary. wonder how much water is used in that 4 hours required to generate 30kwh?
also, is it just fresh water? will it work with salt water? how filtered does it need to be? im assuming you cant just hook up a line to the creek out back. imo time to go get some of that moon water!
I wonder if beneficiaries of the money are all required to make political promotional videos like this one? It seems so with the multiple references to the stimulus plan, chu etc. Pitiful political manipulation of public opinion. Politicians leave the science to the scientists kick in some money then shut up and quit trying to take credit for innovation created by someone else paid for by someone else.
That being said I like this idea. The light from a flashlight shining on the catalyst obviously producing hydrogen even from a low energy source was impressive. Economics of scale should bring down the price sharply and hydrogen storage on a low pressure system ought to be easy enough to implement. This is the kind of thinking we need more of in this country. The kind we used to do all the time.
that video didn't explain much.
how expensive is the catalyst to produce? is it expended in the process of splitting the water, if so, how quickly?
Photosynthesis is very efficient. I saw a lot of ideas over the years that didn't pan out but this one is cooler than cool-aid, if the promise survives the hype...
deegeezee- A catalyst, by definition, is something which facilitates a reaction but is not used up by the reaction. So assuming it is a stable compound then you wouldn't need to replace it.
This really is an awesome idea! Think of the potential uses. Not just for your home. The mental image I get is a rack of water bottles on top of an electric car. Or think about taking a small unit camping with you, or carrying one around to power all the electronic gadgets we're accumulating. And of course providing power in the third world.
If everyone had these think of all the money and materials that would be saved by not having to maintain a power grid.
Yeah, how dare the proffesors getting grants from the tax payers comment on how the tax payers have invested well.
Converting sun to energy is acomplished in many ways. We could already split water with sunlight via a photovoltaic cell and eletrolysis. If this process cuts out the electricity stage, thats more efficient. If its more efficient than a photovoltaic, we'll start seeing aquariums on the roofs of houses. Sweet.
This is really cool, BUT why did take 20 years? Is catalyst really hard to make?
Something smells a little fishy. But I hope it works.
This is absolutely meaningless without stating either efficiency or how much energy is required to produce the 30 kilowatt-hours.
Splitting H20 with solar (even with a catalyst) is nothing new or even newsworthy.
Even the video is devoid of any real information.
Concept sounds fine and hope it works but .....
... unless I'm completely going blind the source article from this does not state how long it takes to produce any amount of electricity using THIS technique.
"Using the electricity generated by a photovoltaic array five meters by six meters, Nocera claims he can split enough water in less than four hours "to store enough energy for the average American home" for a day, a little more than 30 kilowatt-hours."
Photovoltaic cells are photovoltaic cells NOT "a new photosynthetic process" being funded by the US government.
... suggest the cut-and-paste editorial left a vital point out.
Consider this. If this were a be all end all awesome source of energy, imagine how anyone at all who had invested in oil would react. If This were to overtake the energy market, what would happen to all those poor billionaires providing jobs and what-not?
Hmph. After watching the video, you can easily replicate this experiment through a 9 volt battery and two carbon rods. These rods, hooked up to the battery and dipped into water, will produce hydrogen and oxygen, if only for a short amount of time. All they've done here is make it where the sun is providing the battery.
cool technology, but I don't think this is really new. The basic model is to add energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Store the hydrogen, then recombine it with oxygen to get electricity; hence a hydrogen fuel-cell. Where do yo get the energy to split water? You can: use coal, water damns generators, paddle a stationary bike, or use solar panels (like here).
One problem. I wonder if EPA will allow to “drill” for domestic water will we be dependent on some foreign nation for the water imports? Remember when farmers in California were denied water because some fish need it? Politician will make stupid laws that you won't even be able to collect rain with buckets.
The guy has been at this for 25 years, why is the stimulus money the main driver? Ohh wait a minute, 2010 – 25 = 1985, is the stimulus money from 1985 crisis that's finally paying off?
Totally unclear what's going on here - does this catalys work directly with light and water, or are solar panels needed to create electricity first?
If this is simply catalyst + light + water = Hydrogen fuel then that's remarkable - if you still need electricity then it's of little interest.
NB Photosynthesis is already used to produce bio-fuels (even fossil fuels were created via photosynthesis)
I checked the source, and it would seem that
1. It does use electricity to split the water
2. Apparently he decided to use a regular solar panel to provide the electricity
3. This method claims to generate more energy from the hydrogen and oxygen it produces than it requires to split the water.
I have read many miracle proposals. I hope that this one is true. Time will tell.
Iceland's been making hydrogen from water for a few years now....oil companies will make this tech "dissappear" for America.... sadly...
I did appreciate the dedicated Yoda voice though.
Quote SciAm: "Using the electricity generated by a photovoltaic array five meters by six meters, Nocera claims he can split enough water[...]".
In other words, the process is electrolysis, and has nothing to do with any kind of photosynthesis.
What really makes the big difference here is that Nocera had the idea of using a cobolt based catalyst on the electrodes, which seems to boost the output of hydrogen to unprecedented levels.
A 6 meters by 5 meters solar array gives an output of approximately 4.5kW, which would mean that for each produced kW of hydrogen, the process uses 0.6 kW of electricity. Which is not bad a bad yield, not a bad yield at all.
This isn't photosynthesis; it's based on proven science which has been available for years, such as the DIY plans available at www.zchs.org/NRG though the $4M version seems to offer improved efficiency. That's all well and good, but given that both water and sunlight are essentially free, is there any real advantage in paying more?
Is there a peer-reviewed paper on this available to read, or is this being announced in the fashion of "cold fusion"?
The process of using photovoltaics to split water into hydrogen and oxygen is not a new concept. Texas Instruments was doing this back in the early 80's using a hydrogen bromide solution in a closed loop system involving a solar panel made up of tiny silicon beads with P-N junctions adhered to a substrate (sort of like sand on sand paper). The beads of silicon were flooded with the hydroden bromide solution and when exposed to sunlight the hydrogen was separated from the solution then recombined in a fuel cell to produce electricity. I don't know what happened to the idea - probably some oil company bought the patent and killed the future of this technology.
Why does Dan Nocera think this is "photosynthesis"? It's a photovoltaic process, not photosynthesis!
Well, I think one key feature has to have been omitted.
The waste product of the fuel cell is: water. It seems that, in theory, you could circulate the water produced in the fuel cell back to the solar collection apparatus. Since there is a constant input of solar energy, no conservation laws would be violated.
It might be, that a bottle's worth of water is introduced into a closed system, preventing the need for a massive water distribution system, and unreasonable amounts of filtering.
If true, such a system would be blissfully independent and extremely portable. I could see the military applications of lift-and-go power stations making government investment likely.
Often times, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is not true.
With that in mind, pay special attention to 1:04 when the speaker makes an interesting facial gesture by quickly looking down in a split second after he claims he is bringing this to a "real live technology". Hopefully it is true that he is bringing this to a live tech, but the facial gesture he made COULD indicate a guilty conscience by looking down or being deceitful. I am not saying he is being deceitful in these claims, just pointing out what he did at 1:04. It also could be that something caught his attention on the floor, so he looked down.
I've invested and lost money in similar low-cost energy technologies like this and they just never seem to make it to market, so I am skeptical whenever I hear this type of stuff. And when a guy looks down for a split second after claiming to eventually bring this to market, my BS detectors start going off. And again, I could be completely wrong, and I probably am.
If they got together with the makers of the Bloombox, then all of our energy problems would be solved.
Anybody remember the movie Chain Reaction with Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman? This sounds like the exact same thing to me. Will the technology be suppressed just like it was there? Or are we better than that now? I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that NO power company really wants this technology to hit the market.
When I was 12, I used a battery to split water into hydrogen and oxygen by creating two anodes from cutting up another battery.
If you want to do it yourself, here's how to do it. And any 12 year old can do this.
If you want a power source, hook up a solar panel to it.
Someone gave this guy 4 million dollars to do the same thing I did when I was 12.
People's stupidity never ceases to amaze me. As another poster said, photosynthesis is very inefficient. It is one of the reasons trees grow so slowly.
Compare the speed of tree growth to moving a car, for example.
You could use photosynthesis to generate energy in other ways. You could plant a tree seed in the ground, water it for 20 years (or just let it grow if you are in an area where it rains). Then cut it down and burn it to generate energy.
You wouldn't have to worry when it was dark out because the tree would be "storing" the energy at night.
That isn't exactly going to be solve anyone's energy problems.
Must be nice to get millions of dollars over decades to screw around with "inventions" like that.
"A 6 meters by 5 meters solar array gives an output of approximately 4.5kW, which would mean that for each produced kW of hydrogen, the process uses 0.6 kW of electricity. Which is not bad a bad yield, not a bad yield at all. "
Not bad, merely impossible. Generating more power than
the sun is providing is just not going to happen.
At best, stored hydrogen can act like a battery to store
the energy for overnight use. But here is another wacky
idea ... why not just use a battery?
THIS IS REALLY A GREAT IDEA, I'M JUST CONCERN IF THE CATALYST
LEAKS INTO OPEN WATER. WHAT DANGER DOES IT POSE TO OUR AQUATIC ECOSYSTEM?
@fche There is something you don't seem to get. The water is already a battery with the stored energy of hydrogen. So essentially you have a "free" battery from the water tap. You use .65kw/h of energy to free 1kw/h of energy from the water WHICH ALREADY HAS THE ENERGY. Sure, you are right you're not creating energy... it's just like using oil... but instead of burning oil you're burning hydrogen. btw, .35 (the extra energy produced over th original .65 needed for the catalyst) is 350 watts for an hour. In four hours this produces 350 watts * 30 = 10500 watt hours. and for examples sake "A heater, rated at 1000 watts (1 kilowatt), operating for one hour uses one kilowatt hour (equivalent to 3,600 kilojoules) of energy."
This is complete fraud and deception. Instead of storing the energy in batteries they are converting it to hydrogen and oxygen. The average solar radiation arriving at the top of the Earth's atmosphere is roughly 1,366 watts per square meter. 4 hours of "peak" solar insolation is 5,464 watts. Multiply that by the quoted 6 meters by 5 meters solar array and you have 163,930 Watt Hours. The claimed 30KWh of energy stored in hydrogen and Oxygen is only produced at 18.3% efficiency. We are still limited to the cost and expense of the photovoltaic Solar panels.
Meaning you still need to pay the $20,000 for the Solar panels, Plus all the expenses for the Catalytic process and equipment, Hydrogen and Oxygen storage Tanks. You can dump the Oxygen unless you want containers of rocket fuel on your residence.
So in reality this is nothing more then combining expensive photovoltaic panels on your roof and using electrolysis you convert the electricity into hydrogen. Big deal! It's been done for many decades already. The efficiency is still limited to the solar cells.
To heat a home you can burn the Hydrogen but to convert it to electricity you would need a fuel cell dropping that 18.3% efficiency to 9-12% efficiency. Sure you could use an engine and generator setup to burn the hydrogen but we know the Carnot cycle limits efficiency just like it does in todays vehicles.
This technology is already decades old and offers nothing promising.
Water is the leftover "ash" from a previous liberation of energy resulting from a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Energy must be added to split it into two gases again before the reaction can be repeated. Unless the Laws of Thermodynamics are repealed more energy will be required to split the gases than can be harvested from the re-combination.