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Solar Power is Getting Personal

MIT professor Daniel Nocera is taking solar power personal. His water-splitting solar energy storage technology could turn every home into a “personal-scale” power plant, making each home self-sufficient. Nocera evisions a home with rooftop solar panels that create solar electricity for use during the day. Excess energy would be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. That hydrogen and oxygen would later be used to run a fuel cell that powers the home at night.

If Nocera and his colleagues at MIT are successful in developing a system that is both feasible and affordable, home solar power could make independent power producers out of us all. Homeowners would almost certainly jump at the opportunity, although I’m not sure how utilities would take the news. Nocera has also applied his thinking to cars through solar fuel, which he markets through start-up Sun Catalytix.

Sun Catalytix is also developing Nocera’s home solar power systems. Both innovations have garnered Nocera and MIT a lot of press over the past few years. Time magazine listed him as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2009, and Sun Catalytix was one 37 companies to receive a grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program.

Obstacles to fully developing “personal” solar power systems and solar fuel include:

  • Developing a material that could absorb enough solar energy to begin the water-splitting reaction.
  • Finding a metal cheaper than the platinum normally used to catalyze a second reaction.
  • Converting hydrogen molecules to hydrogen gas to power the fuel cell.

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