Monday, June 3, 2013

Fuel cells and artificial leaves

When I first learned about fuel cells some years ago, I had a vision that the days of a centralized power stations delivering power to homes and businesses via a huge grid infrastructure would become obsolete, and it should be possible for fuel cells to create a new paradigm for energy - that of each home or business having its own power source rather than buying power from the grid and paying the large utilities for the power.  

I saw a future where we each generate our own power rather than get it from a centralized source, which is run by some combination of gigantic corporations and gigantic governments.

I saw a home as having a furnace, and air conditioner, and a fuel cell that produced the power needed to run the home.  The fuel cells seem to work just fine, but the problem has been how to get hydrogen to the fuel cells.  Now, perhaps, there is a way for this to become real before too long.

Daniel Nocera, MIT chemistry professor, has come up with what he calls the "Artificial Leaf."  He points out that plants store energy in order to live by gathering energy from the sun and via the process of photosynthesis.  Nocera mimics that to some degree and has come up with a way to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using earth abundant materials, in a glass of water, at room temperature, using a catalyst.  Designing the catalyst is the key, and he seems to be well on the way of doing just that.

So, his plan is to use solar panels during the sunlight to power your house, and send the extra energy to the catalyst which breaks out the hydrogen and oxygen, store them, and run the fuel cell to generate power for the home at night.  The hydrogen and oxygen get recombined in a fuel cell which powers your home when the sun doesn't shine.  Viola, no more need for a power grid for your home.  Or your office building.

It could be that a vision of mine of the last twenty years or so is actually possible.  I like it.