Water energy that isn’t hydro

MIT’s Daniel Nocera and team have discovered a new process of electrolysis that might revolutionize the solar industry. Image from Fast Company.

Fast Company is reporting that The Tata Group and Sun Catalytix have joined forces to explore the potential for generating cheap energy directly from water. The founder of Sun Catalytix, MIT professor of chemistry and energy Daniel Nocera, and his team recently found a way to imitate plant photosynthesis by putting a silicon leaf, coated with a proprietary cobalt and phosphate solution,  into a jar of water. The Tata Group is betting that this is a huge breakthrough.

Attempts to replicate the tiny and efficient solar engines found in plants, which breathe (and generate energy in the process) by harnessing the sun’s rays to split water molecules, have been attempted numerous times over the past 100 years. Electrolysis, which can split water molecules by passing an electrical current through the water, is one such attempt. While electrolysis works, the amount of energy required, the need for pure water, and the potential for competing side reactions has made the approach less than ideal.

What Nocera and his team have done is to create a similar process as electrolysis, but without the need for large amounts of energy, the ability to use even waste water, and with less potential for side reactions. When the team plunged their experimental silicon leaf into a jar of water, they were able to generate power at an efficiency rate surpassing modern solar panels.Although the process is still in its very early, experimental phase, Nocera hopes to refine it enough to power a small home from a bottle-and-a-half of water.

The Tata Group, an Indian group of companies operating in a variety of business sectors, is committed to serving the societies they operate within. Part of this commitment is an interest in bringing resources to low-income and under-served sectors. They hope that Nocera’s discovery can lead to the development of refrigerator-sized power plants, bringing energy to the 3 billion people who currently have to do without.

Nocera estimates that if his solution works as expected and can be further developed, a swimming pool full of water would meet the world’s current daily electricity needs of 14 terawatts. Obviously such a discovery would be a tremendous game changer. We’re watching with interest to see what happens next.

You can watch a video about Sun Catalytix below.

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