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” (subs. req’d). Doh! But who needs a major step towards hydrogen? (see “This just in: Hydrogen fuel cell cars are still dead” and the links at the end for a general debunking.)
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 solve 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 (see here and here).
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: