By Mark Huffman

August 3, 2008
Solar power, which some hold out as a promising form of alternative energy, may have just become a lot more practical.

A researcher at MIT has developed a catalyst that he says can generate oxygen from a glass of water by splitting water molecules. His colleagues say that one simple step could lead to an efficient — and cheap — method of storing energy from the sun.

No one disputes that solar cells can generate significant amounts of energy. The problem is, they can't do it for very long each day. The sun provides abundant energy for just a few hours each day, and none at night, requiring supplemental energy sources or a big bank of batteries.

Dr. Daniel Nocera and his research team have in effect created an artificial form of photosynthesis, which is the way plants use sunlight to turn water into usable energy. Using a cheap and easy to make catalyst, they produce a reaction that in turn produces a hydrogen gas. The hydrogen becomes a fuel, which can be burned or used to power a fuel cell to generate electricity on demand.

How big is this breakthrough?

Karsten Meyer, a professor of chemistry at Friedrich Alexander University, in Germany, calls it "probably the most important single discovery of the century." True, the century is only eight years old, but still, that's saying something.

Scientists say the most significant aspect of the breakthrough is the use of an inexpensive and easy to make catalyst. That, they say, would allow the energy produced from the process to be done at a lower cost that previously believed possible.

Obviously, consumers won't see the benefits of this breakthrough in the short run. Its one thing to make it work in a laboratory, it's quite another to produce it on a scale that it can make a significant contribution to the power grid.

But because of its simplicity and the low cost of the materials involved, other researchers are expected to begin their own experiments, perhaps leading to a commercially viable hydrogen fuel system, powered by the sun.