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Sun Catalytix secures money for low-cost solar fuel

The MIT spin-off finishes a $3 million seed round to pursue a cheap catalyst for splitting water to make hydrogen from clean energy sources.

Sun Catalytix, a company that's trying to develop a revolutionary clean-energy system, has finished a round of seed funding and secured a technology license from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company was formed about one year ago to commercialize research from MIT professor Daniel Nocera in which he attempts to mimic the process of photosynthesis.

Polaris Ventures finalized a $3 million seed round of funding for Sun Catalytix and expects to raise a series A round next year, said Polaris' Bob Metcalfe, who is also on the board.

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

The core of the company's technology, which Nocera has sought to patent, is a low-cost catalyst for an electrolyzer, a device that splits water to make hydrogen. That hydrogen can be used with a fuel cell to make electricity. Or the hydrogen could be combined with other materials to store energy in a liquid fuel, such as methanol or ammonia, Metcalfe said.

Nocera envisions that homes would be equipped with solar panels to produce hydrogen from water during the day. At night, the stored hydrogen could power a home without releasing carbon emissions.

The key difference with the Sun Catalytix electrolyzer is that it is being designed to be made with cheap materials and work with all sorts of water, said Metcalfe.

"Splitting water to make hydrogen is as old as the hills. The breakthrough here is that it's dirt cheap. They operate in dirty water like water from the Charles River and they've used salt water from the Boston Harbor," he said.

The catalyst that splits the water molecules uses cobalt phosphate, which is cheap and abundant compared to expensive metals such as platinum, Metcalfe added. So far, the five-person company has built a number of prototypes made from PVC plastic.

A fully functioning system would take a number of years to develop and depend on other components being cheaper, including solar panels and hydrogen storage, Nocera has said.

But Metcalfe said that Polaris believes the company can commercialize the technology "in the short attention span of a venture capitalist." Typically, venture capitalists expect to generate a big return in five to seven years.