MIT’s solar hydrogen storage ‘breakthrough’ – What’s all the fuss about?

August 05 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Transportation   Year: General   Rating: 5 Hot

By Garry Golden

Last week bloggers across the web from sites dealing with energy, the environment, tech gadgets, mainstream business and policy pushed up MIT’s press release of a major breakthrough in ‘solar-hydrogen energy storage.’

Engadget asked is the energy crisis solved?, Treehugger mirrored MIT’s spin of this Giant Leap and blog Comment sections were flooded with posts ranging from curiosity and praise to flames from skeptics.

The announcement came from the lab of MIT’s Daniel Nocera with work from Post-doc Matthew Kanan. The breakthrough was a low-cost catalyst able to use sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.

The twist? The catalyst is made of cheap, earth-abundant materials (cobalt-phosphates), works at room temperature and is designed for a low scale production ‘energy appliance’ units (not major centralized power plants).

Why the excitement?

It is a cost breakthrough for distributed hydrogen production and an advance from basic science to engineering for oxygen. The MIT approach also hints at how small energy appliances could become someday. And the media is reporting on the importance of energy ‘storage’.

MIT’s ‘giant leap’ was the most hyped story of the week and also likely the least understood.

So why is energy storage potentially disruptive for the future of the energy sector? (Continued)

Why hydrogen?

Chemistry is a foundation for innovation in the energy sector. MIT’s announcement is a chemistry breakthrough for oxygen and hydrogen. (Carbon is the third major element for the energy sector.)

Nocera is not a true believer in hydrogen saving the planet, but he is profound in his case for advancing our scientific knowledge and engineering applications for hydrogen

If you are new to the idea of hydrogen (or a staunch critic) watch or listen to Dan Nocera’s MIT lecture – Whales to Wood, Wood to Coal/Oil, What’s Next? video

In this lecture, Nocera explains the ‘value’ of energy is determined by its hydrogen content—which is why natural gas beats gasoline which trumps coal. The more hydrogen, the higher energy content (density) and lower level of carbon emissions.

The real story of energy has been humanity’s gradual shift towards more hydrogen-rich feedstocks as we have built societies around eras of burning wood/biomass, coal, gasoline and natural gas. The next century could be about moving beyond this extraction based strategy of tapping hydrogen’s energy potential.

Nocera understands that getting hydrogen is not easy. It takes a lot of energy and special biological pathways to get photons to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. That is why it is so important to focus on understanding the fundamental science of nature’s basic electron energy systems.

Mother Nature has done all the heavy lifting by creating systems that push positive and negative charges through biological pathways of plants and microorganisms. Long ago, it took solar energy and water and created hydrocarbon chains for our use. Daniel Nocera’s team has studied and mimicked this process and will continue to refine its performance.

Nocera uses a simple equation for the future of energy – water plus light = next oil (hydrogen). Whether we use hydrogen in a fuel cell, or use it combined with carbon to create synthetic liquid fuels, the key strategy is that we tap energy photon-hydrogen- oxygen systems.

So why did bloggers push Nocera’s breakthrough?

Because the MIT team leaped from science to engineering by demonstrating a low-cost distributed ‘energy appliances’ to produce and storage energy at a very local level. And those are the ingredients for low end industry disruption.

This type of energy storage system can be sold over retail shelves by companies like GE, Siemens, Samsung, Toshiba, or GM and Toyota. So market penetration could be quicker assuming we see a commercial version within the next decade.

An ‘Electron Economy’?

Think of Hydrogen and Electricity as the same thing!

Electrons power our world. Electricity drives the global economy, yet we have no economical way of storing it locally.

The ‘Hydrogen Economy’ is an economy based on electricity. Hydrogen (molecule with positive/negative charge) is an electron carrier that holds significant potential in expanding the domain of electricity because it can be stored as a ‘fuel’.

Skeptics of hydrogen often argue in favor of a pure ‘electron economy’ where electricity is simply stored in batteries.

Batteries combine the ‘fuel’ and oxidant’ into one tightly woven system. While batteries are not going away, they have fundamental limits of energy density, performance, cost and toxicity.

The vision of a pure ‘carbon free electron’ economy in which non carbon resources like solar, wind, ocean, geothermal, and nuclear produce electricity, ignores the role hydrogen plays in chemistry with carbon to form other types of fuels and materials feedstocks.

Hydrogen has greater economic value than pure electrons because its applications are much wider in fields of chemistry, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and polymers. Pure streams of electrons are only valuable for electricity.

What should we expect?

Will Nocera’s breakthrough change the industry overnight?


Will it compete with energy dense hydrocarbons of today?


Can it help change the tone of the energy conversation?


We cannot escape the role hydrocarbons play in our world. (Al Gore & bioenergy-)

But being able to store hydrogen from solar energy is the first step towards evolving past an extraction economy that limits us to a reality of resource scarcity. (Another step is seeing the carbon challenge as biologists rather than as engineers-.)

Developing low cost catalysts for decentralized energy appliances and storing energy in the form of hydrogen is a significant step forward – maybe even ‘a leap’!

And while real leaps take years and decades to unfold, Dan Nocera and Matthew Kanan have already started.

And it is a shift in thinking about the future of energy from MIT.

Photo Credits: Oxygen Photo / Tom White, MIT Daniel Nocera Photo / Donna Coveney

Links for more information

National Science Foundation post

Popular Mechanic (Thanks justinelee)

Science Daily

MIT Press Release and video

Published paper – “In Situ Formation of an Oxygen-Evolving Catalyst in Neutral Water Containing Phosphate and Co2+” is available in Science magazine.

Comment Thread (6 Responses)

  1. Here’s an article I found from Popular Mechanics explaining the mechanism and addressing the skepticism, concluding we should leave enthusiasm at bay.

    Posted by: justinelee   August 05, 2008
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  2. Justin – I completely missed the Pop Mechanics article – fantastic explanation and pragmatic tone set by the field of players from Penn State and UC system. That’s the best overview I’ve seen yet. Thanks

    Yes, I think to be over-excited is a bit out of hand given the real challenges ahead. But I’m definitely a proponent of moving forward with enthusiasm given the disruptive nature of local production and storage.

    Having following H2 research for a few years now, I’m not sure I see room for skepticism. But we should definitely avoid making ridiculously optimistic claims. I’m just pushing people to think in terms of decades when it comes to energy.

    And on the optimistic side. We might be on an edge of a new energy system where we can control H2 and carbon at a very local level. I can easily imagine GE, Samsung or Toshiba (or GM/Toyota) investing heavily in this form of energy appliance and storage system by 2012 and by then the public might be ready for a new conversation. So I’ll be quietly enthusiastic until then.. Thanks for the comment—

    Posted by: Garry Golden   August 05, 2008
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  3. This “breakthrough” is nothing more than a steaming pile of hyperbole.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   August 05, 2008
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  4. Justine… sorry for ‘justin’ mix up… missed the ‘e’!!!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   August 05, 2008
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  5. Great! I’m glad there are people out there like you who can explain in plain English what is actually under the headlines and what it means. Great article.

    Posted by: John Heylin   August 05, 2008
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  6. I don’t think of this “break through” as hyperbole. We live in a society and a scientific community that is disjointed and controlled by industry and therefore politics. Focusing public attention creates awareness and demand.

    Any energy breakthrough is going to have enemies. Public demand and transparency reduces the opportunity for political/industrial suppression. Hyperbole attracts. Information is power especially when the masses are stimulated to demand.

    This particular technology may not be the answer or the only answer; but to miss an opportunity to raise the public consciousness and demand for energy alternatives is possibly dangerous.

    Participants on this forum should remember their own knowledge is likely worlds more sophisticated than that of the average person. We need the average person’s enthusiastic support of scientific advancements if not their complete understanding of that science.

    Posted by: DocChaos   November 21, 2010
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