200-fold boost in fuel cell efficiency advances 'personalized energy systems'

August 23, 2010, American Chemical Society
A new catalyst could help speed development of inexpensive home-brewed solar energy systems for powering homes and plug-in cars during the day (left) and for producing electricity from a fuel cell at night (right). Credit: Patrick Gillooly/MIT

The era of personalized energy systems -- in which individual homes and small businesses produce their own energy for heating, cooling and powering cars -- took another step toward reality today as scientists reported discovery of a powerful new catalyst that is a key element in such a system. They described the advance, which could help free homes and businesses from dependence on the electric company and the corner gasoline station, at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, being held this week.

"Our goal is to make each home its own power station," said study leader Daniel Nocera, Ph.D. "We're working toward development of 'personalized' energy units that can be manufactured, distributed and installed inexpensively. There certainly are major obstacles to be overcome — existing fuel cells and must be improved, for instance. Nevertheless, one can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic system."

Such a system would consist of rooftop solar energy panels to produce electricity for heating, cooking, lighting, and to charge the batteries on the homeowners' . Surplus electricity would go to an "," a device that breaks down ordinary water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen. Both would be stored in tanks. In the dark of night, when the cease production, the system would shift gears, feeding the stored hydrogen and oxygen into a that produces electricity (and clean drinking water as a byproduct). Such a system would produce clean electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week — even when the sun isn't shining.

Nocera's report focused on the electrolyzer, which needs catalysts — materials that jumpstart like the ones that break water up into hydrogen and oxygen. He is with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Good catalysts already are available for the part of the electrolyzer that produces hydrogen. Lacking, however, have been inexpensive, long-lasting catalysts for the production of oxygen. The new fills that gap and boosts oxygen production by 200-fold. It eliminates the need for expensive platinum catalysts and potentially toxic chemicals used in making them.

The new catalyst has been licensed to Sun Catalytix, which envisions developing safe, super-efficient versions of the electrolyzer, suitable for homes and small businesses, within two years.

The National Science Foundation and the Chesonis Family Foundation provided funding for this study. Nocera did the research with post-doctoral researcher Mircea Dinca and doctoral candidate Yogesh Surendranath. The U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency has recently awarded the team with a grant, which it plans to use to search for related compounds that can further increase the efficiency of its electrolyzer technology. The team hopes that nickel-borate belongs to a family of compounds that can be optimized for super-efficient, long-term energy storage technologies.

Explore further: Catalyst could power homes on a bottle of water, produce hydrogen on-site (w/ Video)

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not rated yet Aug 23, 2010
ever see a balloon filled with hydrogen and oxygen gas explode? absolutely amazing how much energy is in water.
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 24, 2010
Dude, thats how much energy is in the hydrogen and oxygen. After it becomes water the energy is gone.

Water is the ash of a hydrogen fire.
3 / 5 (2) Aug 24, 2010
This story reeks of bad reporting and unchecked facts. A 200-fold boost in oxygen production is not the same as a 200-fold (that's 20,000 percent) increase in fuel cell efficiency. If that was indeed the case, the MIT lab where the new catalyst was tested would have gone critical and ended up a smoldering hole in the ground.
not rated yet Aug 24, 2010
Sounds accurate. A 200 fold oxygen production advantage as stated here is implied in terms of cost effectiveness. If traditional conversion methods incur a cost of $2.00 per liter of water, this would yield a 200 fold production advantage, implying it would convert the same amount for $0.01.
not rated yet Aug 24, 2010
Now the consumer has to pay for some exotic proprietary catalyst? How much energy is expended in creating this catalyst?

I did a patent search and came up with this:

You basically have to be a chemical engineer to understand the process explained in the patent.

I am sure the military already has something worthwhile aboard their submarines.
not rated yet Aug 30, 2010
This story reeks of bad reporting and unchecked facts. A 200-fold boost in oxygen production is not the same as a 200-fold (that's 20,000 percent) increase in fuel cell efficiency. If that was indeed the case, the MIT lab where the new catalyst was tested would have gone critical and ended up a smoldering hole in the ground.

Not only that, increasing the current efficiency of around 10% of current fuel cells 200-fold, thus creating 20 times the energy that went into it, surely breaks a lot of laws... physical laws that is. :-)
not rated yet Sep 01, 2010
Efficiency is a ratio, not an absolute value. If a process is initially 90% efficient, then doubling the efficiency would mean it became 95% efficient.

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