« Tuesday Topsight, July 29, 2008 | Main | Future Salon: A Greener Tomorrow -- The Video »

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.


Unfortunately the articles are very spares on details - do you know anything about this method's efficiency?

I wonder if we argue the merits of various approaches because we're seeking a "silver bullet." That may be a cage we think in. Perhaps we'll need "silver buckshot." This could be one pellet.

(Daniel) No release on efficiencies - really more a demo engineering breakthrough for oxygen catalysts - and an important one b/c of costs and emph. on electron storage as important to the future.

And yes (David Folley) I think the problem is seeking or arguing against one bullet approach. H2 certainly has a role and takes a lot of 'arm chair' engineer blows about its apparent short-comings. We're going to need all systems to evolve and not look to one solution.

And Jamais,glad to hear that you are still not entirely closed off to H2.
The online crowd of 'batteries are our only hope' often underestimate battery challenges - and overstate challenges of H2.

I think they are the loudest voice in the room when it comes to transportation, but being loud doesn't always mean you are right.

For transportation, I think the reality is a combination of all three systems- batteries, fuel cells, capacitors. Not one rules them all.

And H2's disruptive potential is as storage innovation. It is also much more valuable to marketplace than pure electrons. H2, carbon and oxygen our the foundations of energy. Pure electrons are a tough game to play.

I just wrote a post on Memebox about the reasons for quiet optimism with the MIT announcement - and we will be launching a blog within the Memebox network called The Energy Roadmap in a few weeks. We'll keep you posted...


This discovery seems to have received far more hype than I would have imagined and I remain somewhat lukewarm to the "hydrogen economy" idea.

However, I think you are right to say that fuel cells make more sense for buildings than cars - and that this could be a useful innovation for solar power generation given the energy storage option that is added compared to PV / thin film.

The linked article said it is like photosynthesis. I find this very confusing. Photosynthesis produce sugar, not hydrogen. Also his innovation has nothing to do with solar. The diagram shows solar energy is captured using the same expensive PV panel. It is the electricity that generates hydrogen by electrolysis. The electricity could come from solar panel, or it could come from a coal power plant. So my understanding of his idea is to use electrolysis to produce hydrogen for storage. Still a worthy idea. It is just the use of photosynthesis metaphor sounds misleading.


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37