MIT spin-off stores sun's energy to power the world

Newly formed company Sun Catalytix says that the only way to bring energy to world's poor is capturing and storing solar energy in distributed fuel cell systems.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--MIT professor Daniel Nocera is a "huge centralized energy person" but when he looks at the world's energy challenges, he thinks the key is to make energy generation cheap and distributed.

MIT last year announced that a technology developed by Nocera's lab-- a catalyst that can split water--could be used store solar energy. Earlier this year, Nocera formed a company called Sun Catalytix, backed by venture capital firm Polaris Ventures, to commercialize that discovery.

Engineers are now working on a prototype design for the system, Nocera said at the EmTech conference on emerging technology last Thursday. He added that the company has also hired Art Goldstein, the retired CEO of water desalination company Ionics which was purchased by General Electric, to be chairman.

Sun Catalytix is pursuing a breakthrough system that would use cheap solar panels to produce hydrogen, which would be stored and then used to produce electricity in a fuel cell. MIT

"This technology is moving really fast. We're already at the engineering prototype design. I'm hiring no scientists--I'm just having a massive engineering effort right now," he said. "Within two years, we want to have a totally working kilowatt system."

However, a fully functioning system will take more like 8 or ten years because it requires multiple components, including hydrogen storage, cheaper solar panels, and cheaper fuel cells.

Shooting for the moon
The team at Sun Catalytix is pursuing a technological and commercial breakthrough--not an incremental improvement to solar technologies, as fellow MIT spin-off 1366 Technologies is doing.

The core of Sun Catalytix's technology is a cobalt phosphate catalyst that is more efficient at splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen than other materials, according to Nocera. During his talk, he said that it will work under ambient temperatures and with a wide range of water quality--the lab has tested water from the Charles River in Boston and it operates well.

There are already commercial electrolyzers that split water to make hydrogen, but they are expensive and require a significant amount of energy to run. Sun Catalytix is testing an electroylzer, built around the catalyst, that can be manufactured using cheap PVC plastic, Nocera said.

The idea is to use solar panels to power the electrolyzer to produce hydrogen which would be stored in tanks. When people need electricity, the stored hydrogen would be put through a fuel cell.

Nocera calculates that three liters of water a day could power a home, or a fuel cell car in the "legacy world," or rich countries with a high standard of living. In poor countries where people don't use much energy, three liters would make a dramatic difference, providing power for several people, he said.

Billions of people in countries of Africa or in India use little energy today but that is changing rapidly. So even if richer countries use energy efficienctly, the world's energy needs will continue explode in the coming decades, making cheap, distributed energy essential, he said.

The key to Sun Catalytix's technology is a catalyst made from a cobalt phosphate material that can split water into oxygen and hydrogen more efficiently than current products. MIT

"The solution, assuming the legacy world does the right thing (and use energy efficiently), to this problem for the future is attacking the non-legacy world and they don't have any money. That's the challenge," he said.

Typically what happens in energy research is that engineers try to shrink large-scale systems down, but that approach doesn't work because the costs of manufacturing don't go down enough, Nocera argued. Batteries, in his view, don't have sufficient energy density to be cheap enough for storage on a wide scale, while fuel cells offer more promise.

"What you need in my opinion is to start with a blank piece of paper and start inventing. Don't take what's there and try to reengineer it."

For Sun Catalytix's vision to take hold, however, it needs more than a cheap electrolyzer. Also required is a hydrogen storage tank, which is not a big technical or commercial challenge. A cheap hydrogen fuel cell still needs more work but is attainable. "I don't need a fuel cell that's in a Toyota or Honda car. I need all the technology they threw away 20 years ago because they couldn't get high enough power density for a car," he said.

Similarly, relatively inefficient amorphous silicon solar panels need to be cheaper but would suit the application he envisions of a distributed power source for poor countries.

"We have to get away from how we think about how we live in the legacy world (because) that will not be the solution for the non-legacy world," he said.