Personalized energy systems, where instead of huge nuclear plants (or worse, even larger windmills or solar farms) powering air conditioning for homes or gas stations fueling cars, individuals can produce power themselves, edged a little closer as scientists reported discovery of a new nickel borate catalyst that could boost efficiency of fuel cells up to 20,000 percent. 

The system would consist of rooftop solar energy panels that produce electricity for heating, cooking, lighting, and to charge the batteries on the homeowners' electric cars during. Any 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 solar panels cease production, the system would feed 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.

nickel borate catalyst for personalized energy system MIT
New nickel borate 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).  Credit: Patrick Gillooly/MIT

Good catalysts already exist for the part of the electrolyzer that produces hydrogen but  inexpensive, long-lasting catalysts for the production of oxygen have not been found. The researchers say their new nickel borate catalyst is just that, and boosts oxygen production by 200-fold. It 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 says it intends to develop safe, super-efficient versions of the electrolyzer, suitable for homes and small businesses, within two years.

"Our goal is to make each home its own power station," said study leader Daniel Nocera, Ph.D. "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 National Science Foundation and the Chesonis Family Foundation provided funding for this study. Nocera did the research with post-doctoral researcher Mircea Dinca and doctoral candidate Yogesh Surendranath. The U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency has recently awarded the team with a grant, which it plans to use to search for related compounds that can further increase the efficiency of its electrolyzer technology. The team hopes that nickel-borate belongs to a family of compounds that can be optimized for super-efficient, long-term energy storage technologies.