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Personal Energy Systems: Get Yours in 2012

personal power

A newly discovered catalyst can jump-start the separation of oxygen from water to power fuel cells for the home, a professor from MIT told peers at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. Personal energy systems are coming your way.

Study leader Daniel Nocera, Ph.D. didn't detail what exactly the secret sauce was—only that its cheaper than earlier attempts with platinum and *big bonus here* doesn't contain toxic chemicals.

Nocera's Boston-startup Sun Catalytix has licensed the technology and aims to produce the catalysts for use in homes and small businesses by 2012.

"Our goal is to make each home its own power station," said Nocera. "We're working toward development of 'personalized' energy units that can be manufactured, distributed and installed inexpensively."

The announcement is significant because it could provide power to the unplugged masses in rural areas and provide an alternative to consumers eager to abandon fossil fuels and distance themselves from power companies and gas stations.

So how, exactly would the system work? The description given to the American Chemical Society is pretty straightforward:

The system would have rooftop solar energy panels to produce electricity for heating, cooking, lighting, and to charge the batteries on your 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, when the solar panels cease production, 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). Such a system would produce clean electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week—even when the sun isn't shining.

Good catalysts already 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 fills that gap and boosts oxygen production by 200-fold. It eliminates the need for expensive platinum catalysts and potentially toxic chemicals used in making them.

A personal energy system (with yummy drinking water) by 2012 may be a stretch though: Nocera says more work remains on improving existing fuel cells and solar cells.

Maybe he'll be able to help on that one too.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency has recently awarded the team with a grant to help find super-efficient, long-term energy storage technologies.

[Credit: Patrick Gillooly/MIT]