Skip the navigation

MIT: Solar power storage breakthrough could bring energy 'nirvana'

Research could make current home power sources obsolete in 10 years

August 4, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Researchers at MIT say they have made an energy storage breakthrough that could transform solar power from an alternative energy source to a mainstream source. The university is calling the solar project a major advancement in energy research.

Sunlight has the greatest potential of any power source to solve the world's energy problems, Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and a researcher on the project, said in a statement. In one hour, enough sunlight strikes the Earth to provide the entire planet's energy needs for one year.

The problem, however, is how best to harness that energy.

The research is a "giant leap" toward generating clean, carbon-free energy on a massive scale, said James Barber, a biochemistry professor at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the solar project.

"This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind," Barber said in a statement. "The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production, thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem."

Nocera said he's hopeful that within 10 years, people will no longer power their homes using electricity-by-wire from a central source. Instead, homeowners will be able to power their homes with solar power during daylight hours and use this new energy-storage method for electricity at night.

The problem with using solar power has been figuring out an inexpensive way to store the sun's energy for those times when the sun isn't shining, said Nocera. Although it could be done, the cost is prohibitive with current technologies.

Taking a page from photosynthesis in plant life, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, came up with a process (see video) to use the energy from the sun to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases, according to a report from MIT. Later, when it's needed, the gases can be combined inside a fuel cell. That reconnection creates carbon-free electricity that can be used to power an office building, a home or even an electric car — whether the sun is shining or not.

Nocera noted that the process uses natural materials, is inexpensive to conduct and is easy to set up. "That's why I know this is going to work. It's so easy to implement," he said.

"This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," said Nocera. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now, we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."



Our Commenting Policies
Consumerization of IT: Be in the know
consumer tech

Our new weekly Consumerization of IT newsletter covers a wide range of trends including BYOD, smartphones, tablets, MDM, cloud, social and what it all means for IT. Subscribe now and stay up to date!