Schematic of Daniel Nocera’s personalized energy system. Credit: MIT News Office

Daniel Nocera likes it when he is called a revolutionary. “Yes, sure I am!,” he responded when a writer from the Nachricten aus der Chemie journal asked if “revolutionary” is an accurate description of him. To be sure, the journal probably anticipated this response, given that he is head of MIT’s Solar Revolution Project.

That revolutionary reputation has been enhanced today after he announced that his research group had achieved a major milepost, in a field often described as artificial photosynthesis, that Nocera believes puts the world, especially the developing world, on the brink of the era of “personalized energy systems.”

Nocera and his fellow researchers have been working on a system whose main elements are:

  • Rooftop solar energy panels to produce electricity for heating, cooking, lighting, and to charge the batteries on the homeowners’ electric cars.
  • An electrolyzer to use excess solar energy and a special catalyst to convert ordinary water into hydrogen and oxygen.
  • Storage tanks for the hydrogen and oxygen.
  • A fuel cell to convert the gases back into clean electricity.

Nearly all of the above pieces of such a personalize system have been ready to go for some time – with the main exception being a good catalytic material in the electrolyzer for the production of oxygen.

That’s why Nocera’s report today is raising eyebrows. He says they have found a new nickel–borate catalyst that fills the missing materials gap and boosts oxygen production by 200-fold. Performance isn’t the only consideration. From a cost containment point of view, Nocera’s announcement is a breakthrough because he says the new catalyst eliminates the need for catalysts based on expensive platinum or toxic chemicals.

Details about the composition of the oxygen catalyst aren’t available as yet.

The new catalyst is being licensed to a spin-off company founded by Nocera, Sun Catalytx.

ARPA-E has also given Nocera’s team a grant to find similar compounds and believes that nickel-borate belongs to a family of materials that can be optimized for efficient and long-term energy storage applications.

For anyone interested in Nocera’s work, it is absolutely worth reading his interview in January with Nachrichten, titled “I just love seeing all those solar panels.” At the time, Nocera was working with cobalt and phosphate catalyst compounds, and even then he felt like the ability to manufacture an inexpensive catalyst was around the corner:

Nachrichten: When do you think artificial photosynthesis could become competitive?

Nocera: Once we get the catalyst to do the water splitting I think artificial photosynthesis will move very, very quickly. We have shown that the catalyst we invented actually works. Now a newly formed company is working hard to commercialize water splitting. I think we’re looking at sooner rather than later with this discovery.

But, besides the science behind this work, I find the most refreshing thing about Nocera’s strategy is it’s optimism about his systems quickly taking root in the developing regions of the world:

Nocera: Energy distribution in the legacy world is not going change very quickly in the years to come. . .

Part of this commercialization strategy is starting right now: in India. Some influential people in the industrial sector have been following what I do and are eager to help me move into India. First I need to make sure that the technology is robust — that it functions at this price. If we succeed — and I’m hoping we will, in less than two years — I’ll know how robust this technology is. They would help me manufacture the equipment and move it quickly into India. Africa is more complicated with its many countries. I’m working through the United Nations, which has been really a great address for me for learning to understand Africa and targeting certain countries to begin with. I have some African students right now in my research group. So while they are getting their Ph.D.s they are learning about the technology. And they are hoping — and that is my hope, too — that they can go back to their countries and start helping me there.

For more on Nocera, see:

ARPA-E promotes Nocera’s simple solar-storage concepts

Nocera makes more news with electrolysis gains

More about Nocera’s electrolysis catalyst

Catalyst discovery unlocks low-cost solar storage