‘Major discovery’ from MIT unpractical, and ignores present advances in solar baseload
I have gotten bombarded by too many people asking me if the story headlined above is true. It isn’t. Not even close.
Science magazine, which published the supposedly “major discovery” by MIT’s Daniel Nocera, headlined their story, “New Catalyst Marks Major Step in the March Toward Hydrogen Fuel” ($ub. req’d). Doh! But who needs a major step towards hydrogen?
And Science seems to be having problems with the laws of physics, as we’ll see. I thought I had explained this to Scientific American, but given their puff piece — the findings “help pave the way for a future hydrogen economy” — I obviously failed. Let me try again.
MIT had the sexier headline on unleashing the solar revolution. Too bad that headline isn’t accurate for two mains reasons: The solar revolution already has been unleashed, and if it hadn’t been, this technology wouldn’t do the trick even if were near commercial, which it isn’t. MIT reports:
In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative [!] into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn’t shine.
Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today’s announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.
As we’ll see, they have not developed an efficient storage process — and we have no idea if it’s cheap because they don’t have anything near a commercial prototype (indeed, they have not even solved all of the scientific challenges). But in any case, we already have an inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy — it’s called solar baseload.
Yes, solar PV would benefit from cheap storage, but PV’s biggest problem is simply its high price, which is expected to drop rapidly in the coming years. And, in any case, for industrialized countries, you can’t get too excited about storing daytime PV electricity — which avoids expensive peak power — and shifting it to the nighttime, where extra power is almost worthless.
But I digress. It is the details of this “major discovery” that render it quite unexciting and unmajor:
Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”
Note to Nocera: “Nirvana”? That takes the hype about hydrogen to a new level. In any case, solar power is already unlimited and soon. Solar baseload and solar PV are seeing explosive growth now and by 2015, they will probably both be cheaper than new nuclear — and cheaper than new coal and new natural gas if we have a price for emitting carbon dioxide that comes anywhere near close the damage those emissions due to the climate.
Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera’s lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun’s energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.
[In the voice of Jon Stewart] Oh press release from my beloved alma mater, why do you mock me? Who exactly is going to buy this electrolyzer, plus a home hydrogen storage system, plus an expensive fuel cell — for the sole purpose of taking valuable zero-carbon peak electricity and throwing more than half of it away in the round trip, all for the luxury of having nighttime power which we can buy for virtually nothing on the grid. Why not just run your friggin’ electric car on cheap wind power that blows mainly at night?
And the coverage gets better — if by better I mean worse — courtesy of Science:
The catalyst isn’t perfect. It still requires excess electricity to start the water-splitting reaction, energy that isn’t recovered and stored in the fuel.
Oh related story from a beloved science journal that published “A Road Map for U.S. Carbon Reductions,” why do you mock me? Did Science really think that even an illustrious MIT scientist could violate the laws of physics and split water into hydrogen and oxygen using less energy than is recoverd and stored in the fuel (i. e. emitted when the oxygen and hydrogen are recombined)? If you could do that, why bother with solar energy — just split the damn water and recombine it, extract the excess energy, and repeat over and over and over again. You’d have a terrific free-energy-generating perpetual motion machine and a Nobel prize and probably never grow old and get to date Uma Thurman.
And for now, the catalyst can accept only low levels of electrical current. Nocera says he’s hopeful that both problems can be solved, and because the catalysts are so easy to make, he expects progress will be swift.
No. I’m sure Nocera does not believe the first problem can be solved as it would require violating laws of thermodynamics, and he is a “Professor or Energy” at MIT.
Why are so many serious people confused on this point? Even Scientific American ran this absurd caption:
Water Refinery?: A new catalyst and polymer might prove key in delivering cost-effective — and plentiful — hydrogen from water.
Water refinery? Oh magazine that once published an article I wrote with Andy Frank on plug-in hybrids [PDF], why do you mock me? You can’t “refine” water like you can refine petroleum. You can’t extract energy when you split water. You extract energy when you make water. Water is the end state of generating energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen. Water is a waste product, like carbon dioxide, though an especially useful waste product.
Back to Science magazine:
Further work is also needed to reduce the cost of cathodes and to link the electrodes to solar cells to provide clean electricity. A final big push will be to see if the catalyst or others like it can operate in seawater. If so, future societies could use sunlight to generate hydrogen from seawater and then pipe it to large banks of fuel cells on shore that could convert it into electricity and fresh water, thereby using the sun and oceans to fill two of the world’s greatest needs.
So we would place large solar-energy-gathering systems on the turbulent ocean and build large hydrogen pipelines and large banks of fuel cells? No, no, and no. Honestly, people, baseload solar can do all of that for far less cost. Nobody is going to spend a gazillion dollars for a process that throws away more than half the original solar electricity, even if it were practical, which I doubt. And solar baseload can also desalinate water, as can ocean thermal energy.
Back to the MIT release:
Nocera hopes that within 10 years, homeowners will be able to power their homes in daylight through photovoltaic cells, while using excess solar energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen to power their own household fuel cell. Electricity-by-wire from a central source could be a thing of the past.
Why does professor of energy Nocera hope for something so unlikely and unuseful and expensive and inefficient? Most homes probably couldn’t put enough PV panels on their house to generate excess solar energy anyway, even if anybody ever developed unaffordable household fuel cell.
I’ll keep my PV panels for peak power and in a few years buy a plug-in (and lease the battery) and run it on nighttime wind and not have to waste money on a household fuel cell — which are currently wildly expensive — while trying to convince my neighbors and my local zoning board that generating and storing hydrogen in my home is not an unsafe, industrial activity that should require massive ventilation, blow-out walls, and a 50-foot clearance between my house and any neighboring buildings.
Final note to science journalist and scientists: Please stop using words like “major discovery” or “nirvana” or “revolutionary” or “breakthrough” or even “cost-effective” in the same sentence as “hydrogen.”