MIT: Solar power storage discovery could mean energy nirvana

Researchers at MIT say they've made an energy storage breakthrough that could transform solar power from an alternative to a mainstream energy 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 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 gasses, according to a report from MIT. Later, when it's needed, the gasses 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."

This isn't MIT's only foray into making solar power easier to use.

Last month, the university announced that its researchers created a new way to harness the sun's energy by turning windows of big buildings into solar panels.

That technology, dubbed "solar concentrators," harvests light over a wide area such as a window pane and then concentrates or gathers it at the window's edges, Marc Baldo, a professor at MIT and head of the effort, said about the project in an MIT video. Baldo added that the technology also could be used to soup up more traditional solar panels, increasing their efficiency by 50%.

Solar panels are semiconductors (often found on rooftops) that transform sunlight into electricity.

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