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MIT researchers attain solar 'nirvana'

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(Read caption) A method developed by MIT of splitting water molecules mimics the way photosynthesis works in plants.

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A big drawback of solar power is that it doesn't work at night or on cloudy days. But researchers at MIT say they now have an inexpensive way to store solar energy when the sun isn't out.

Daniel Nocera, a chemistry professor at MIT, and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Mr. Nocera's lab, have developed a catalyst made from cobalt and phosphate that can split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas. When used in conjunction with a photovoltaic solar panel, their system can use water to store the sun's energy.

A press release from MIT explains how it works:

The key component in Nocera and Kanan's new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity – whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source – runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.
Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.

At night, the hydrogen and oxygen can be recombined into a fuel cell to produce a carbon-free electric current that can power your home or charge an electric car.

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