Solar Hydrogen (Update: Not So Much the Solar)
[Updated, changes made throughout.] A possible breakthrough at MIT in energy storage: store the generated energy as hydrogen, using a new, incredibly cheap and easy process that functions akin to photosynthesis. This could be big, and it could give a new boost to the fuel cell field.
For a few years now, I've been in the "hydrogen is a dead-end" camp (the most prominent member probably being Joe Romm, author of The Hype About Hydrogen). The compromises required to get a hydrogen infrastructure up and running -- not the least of which being abandoning the clean path by reforming hydrocarbons rather than cracking water -- coupled with the clear advances in with hybrid and full-electric vehicle technologies have really put hydrogen out of the running as a technology path worth pursuing, in my view. Ultracapacitors and nano-enabled batteries seem like the winners, and given how low-profile the fuel cell world has been in the last couple of years, it seemed like my view wasn't all too uncommon.
But along comes MIT's Daniel Nocera, with a new method -- similar to the way that plants derive energy from sunlight -- that he claims will turn regular ph-neutral water into oxygen and hydrogen using low-cost, easily-obtained materials. (Science abstract here.)
Nocera argues that this will make solar the dominant energy-producing technology, not simply through direct electricity generation, but through the production of hydrogen for fuel cells, which can be used in vehicles, for overnight power, and so forth. I'm unclear as to why Nocera is emphasizing solar here -- if this is as much of a breakthrough as he claims, it would be applicable to any kind of electricity generation.
Fuel cells actually make a great deal more sense as a building power system than for cars, in my view. Issues around weight and density of the storage of hydrogen are far less problematic when all the fuel cell power systems have to do is sit on the ground. Similarly, public concerns about the safety of hydrogen (the Hindenburg will haunt us all for decades more) can be more readily alleviated when the fuel cell has a near-zero likelihood of being in a collision.
I'm still inclined to lean towards battery/ultracapacitor electrics over fuel cells for transportation power, but I'm happy to see revived competition from the hydrogen sector.