Monday, April 4, 2011

The Electric Leaf

An Energy Solution for the Developing World?

Artificial photosynthesis Sun Catalytix
~ Not the Nissan Leaf, but a device for artificial photosynthesis. Scientists at MIT report they have built an artificial leaf that creates electricity out of sunlight and water. A solar cell the size of a playing card could, in "bright" sunlight make enough electricity to power a developing world home using only a gallon of water. Said lead researcher Daniel Nocera:
A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades. We believe we have done it. The artificial leaf shows particular promise as an inexpensive source of electricity for homes of the poor in developing countries. Our goal is to make each home its own power station. One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology.
The device splits water into its constituent oxygen and hydrogen, which can then power a fuel cell.

Previous devices have suffered from high cost, low reliability and limited lifetime, but this latest result, presented at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, was achieved through the use of better performing and cheaper catalysts of nickel and cobalt. These catalysts in turn were breakthroughs of just 2 years ago. Nocera's invention also does not require clean water; he's using untreated water straight from Cambridge's Charles River. Nocera has started a company, Sun Catalytix, funded by ARPA-E and Polaris Venture Partners to commercialize the technology. The leadership team is impressive.

If they succeed, this would be a truly game-changing technology for energy and third-world development, providing low cost, sustainable and distributed power generation that can be scaled globally. While it is currently thought to be sufficiently abundant, we might want to add another industrial commodity to the list that may experience shortages in coming years (and from which some savvy people will profit handsomely): cobalt.

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