Wired: Cheap Catalyst Could Turn H2O Back into H2 and O2

This sounds like it could be a big deal, if it could be cheaply scaled:

A new catalyst makes it feasible to split water with solar power.

MIT chemists say the catalyst, used in conjunction with cheap photovoltaic solar panels, could lead to inexpensive, simple systems that use water to store the energy from sunlight.

In the process, the scientists may have cleared the major roadblock on the long road to fossil fuel independence: Reducing the on-again, off-again nature of many renewable power sources.

The catalyst enables the electrolysis system to function efficiently at room temperature and at ordinary pressure. Like a reverse fuel cell, it splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. By recombining the molecules with a standard fuel cell, the O2 and H2 could then be used to generate energy on demand.

The thing a lot of people don’t seem to realize about “hydrogen power” is that there’s no such thing.  Since elemental hydrogen is not widely available on Earth, it has to be split from molecular compounds, such as water, a process that itself requires energy.  Hydrogen is thus a way of storing power, like a battery, not creating it. 

I’m far from an expert on the subject, but it seems to me that if you combine this technology with, breakthroughs in the production of lower cost solar panels—born of, say, the news in June that “Researchers at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) have developed an inexpensive solar cell that can be painted or printed on flexible plastic sheets”, and we could well be seeing building blocks emerge that could lead one day to a real hydrogen economy—and without destroying the world’s existing economy to do it.  Perhaps this could be part of the “low-cost backstop” that William Nordhaus and Freeman Dyson write about here?

Of course, 100 years from now, environmentalists will doubtless be railing on society for polluting the atmosphere with all our excess oxygen.

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