A new catalyst could help speed development of inexpensive home-brewed solar energy systems for powering homes and plug-in cars during the day (left) and for producing electricity from a fuel cell at night (right). (Patrick Gillooly/MIT)
The era of personalized energy systems — in which individual homes and small businesses produce their own energy for heating, cooling, and powering cars — took another step toward forward as MIT scientists have discovered a powerful new catalyst that is a key element in such a system.

The advance was discussed at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society held in Boston, MA.

"Our goal is to make each home its own power station," said study leader Daniel Nocera, Ph.D, of MIT. "We're working toward development of 'personalized' energy units that can be manufactured, distributed, and installed inexpensively. There certainly are major obstacles to be overcome — existing fuel cells and solar cells must be improved, for instance. Nevertheless, one can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic system."

The system would consist of rooftop solar energy panels to produce electricity for heating, cooking, lighting, and to charge the batteries on the homeowners' electric cars. Surplus electricity would go to an "electrolyzer," a device that breaks down ordinary water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen. Both would be stored in tanks. At night, the system would shift gears, feeding the stored hydrogen and oxygen into a fuel cell that produces electricity - and clean drinking water as a byproduct.

Nocera's research focused on the electrolyzer, which needs catalysts — materials that jumpstart chemical reactions like the ones that break water up into hydrogen and oxygen. Good catalysts are available for the part of the electrolyzer that produces hydrogen. Lacking, however, have been inexpensive, long-lasting catalysts for the production of oxygen. The new catalyst boosts oxygen production by 200-fold and eliminates the need for expensive platinum catalysts and potentially toxic chemicals used in making them.

The new catalyst has been licensed to Sun Catalytix, which envisions developing safe, highly efficient versions of the electrolyzer, suitable for homes and small businesses, within two years.

(American Chemical Society)