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‘Major discovery’ from MIT primed to unleash solar revolution — NOT!

By Joe Romm on August 2, 2008 at 6:15 pm

"‘Major discovery’ from MIT primed to unleash solar revolution — NOT!"

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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:

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, 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 baseload solar 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.”

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30 Responses to ‘Major discovery’ from MIT primed to unleash solar revolution — NOT!

  1. Wonhyo says:

    “PV’s biggest problem is simply its high price, which is expected to drop rapidly in the coming years.”

    Joe – How much and how soon do you expect the price of PV to drop? Do you think it will be on the order of 50% drop in 5-10 years? More or less? Sooner or later?

    My utility offers the equivalent of a 45% rebate on a solar installation (in addition to the $2k federal tax credit). In other locations, this would make solar PV very competitive with utility rates, but my utility has such a low rate to begin with, the financial break-even point is 20+ years. I still plan to get a PV system, for the energy price security.

    I’m trying to decide if I should get a full system, sized to provide 100% of my electricity, now with the 45% rebate, or if I should get a smaller system now (say 50%) and add on a lower-cost, newer-tech system later.

    I realize you can only make best estimates, but from your oil insights, I know your best estimates are the most informed. Any insights on expected changes in solar PV pricing are appreciated. Thanks!

  2. john says:

    The state of journalism is abysmal, and nowhere more so than in science reporting. Why isn’t scientific literacy a requirement for reporting on science? It’s not like politics — where arguably one person’s opinion is as good as another’s. It’s bounded by facts and laws and limits that are relatively inviolate — and none more so than the laws of thermodynamics.

    But what the hell is Nocera thinking — he knows better. Could it be the lure of PR and funding?

  3. charlesH says:

    Joe,

    I agree that CSP is a good match for AC load and wind is a good match for PHEV charging since neither application requires 24/7 power if it is demand managed. What I’m confused about is the “base load” claim for CSP.

    To make CSP base load one needs lots of thermal storage. I’m not aware of any thermal storage in CSP plants. Is any one doing this? Is there a paper design somewhere?

  4. Joe says:

    Wonyho — take the rebate now! My guess is that the rebates will decline as the price declines. I do think PV will be perhaps 50% cheaper by around 2015, but a bird in the hand is worth a lot.

    Charles — I use the term “solar baseload” for simplicity’s sake. I think most solar baseload companies are looking at six hours of storage, which means technically it is more “load following” than baseload. And indeed load following is better than baseload in industrialized countries. And of course there is little reason to spend a lot of money to be able to deliver power at four in the morning when most power plants are giving it away — and you would only end up competing with wind. That said, some companies are looking at longer-term storage, And I think that might be more common in developing countries.

  5. Ronald says:

    It’s publish or perish, for journalists and professors. It’s a rough world out there for many careers. buyer and reader beware.

  6. Doug says:

    Joe — you mentioned that solar and wind have yet to match the costs of nuclear, nat. gas, and coal. Would you care to comment on the chart on this page:

    http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid467.php

    which shows nuclear far above the per-kwh cost of other alternatives, and coal and gas also well above wind, without even any carbon taxes. It doesn’t show solar, unfortunately, so I’m not sure exactly how it compares.

    Oh, one thing that’s a bit confusing on the chart is the light blue color — basically, it’s the cost of fuel, but in the cogen colums, it’s the cost of fuel minus the “heat credit” from doing cogen. For nuke, gas, and coal, of course, that credit is zero.

  7. Yes, when I read this I was looking for the piece of the story that constituted the “breakthrough”. That Nocera used the word “nirvana” clues one into the hunger for publicity rather than any substantive advance in the production of hydrogen. Home electrolysis devices have been a staple of talk, one might say propaganda, of the Hydrogen Economy for many years now.

    I did not see any mention of increases in efficiency which is probably the key drawback of hydrogen energy storage.

  8. Joe says:

    Doug:

    I did not say wind has yet to match the costs of nuclear, nat. gas, and coal. I said solar PV and baseload have not.

  9. Joe,
    I think your penchant for sarcasm, which some might enjoy, gets away from you here. If I were someone who didn’t know the basic controversies re: hydrogen, I would get lost in the scorn. I think the public needs to be reminded of the basic problems with hydrogen. Here you come across as a guy who “doesn’t like” hydrogen. I know you have very sound reasons not the “like” it but they are difficult to extract from this post.

    I care about this because you are one of the primary critics of the Hydrogen Economy idea and I want your message to get out there.

    [JR: It is always possible you are right, but 1) I included the link to my recent critique of hydrogen and 2) this post is mostly not about "the hydrogen economy." I have just added more links, though!]

  10. charlesH says:

    Joe,

    We have lot’s of historical data for coal, gas, nuclear and wind (Europe).

    What about CSP? Where is the best data for real world CSP performance?

  11. David B. Benson says:

    The rule-of-thumb is that when a stock company can’t find any better use for its earmings than buying back its own stock, that company is out of ideas and will ‘soon’ be out-of-business.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    charlesH — Try IEA (fairly good) and EIA (ask Joe).

  13. charlesH says:

    david,

    “charlesH — Try IEA (fairly good) and EIA (ask Joe).”

    David, thx for the links. I still can’t find the info I want.

    Can anyone point me to info on the most modern CSP plant in operation or under construction.

    Capital cost
    operating cost
    maintenance cost
    average power output (e.g. MWyrs)

  14. Earl Killian says:

    charlesH said, “To make CSP base load one needs lots of thermal storage. I’m not aware of any thermal storage in CSP plants. Is any one doing this? Is there a paper design somewhere?

    It has been done, but because daytime power fetches a higher price than nighttime power, there is little incentive for companies to do more than prototype thermal storage. That will change when CSP becomes a much larger portion of the grid. The challenge will then to make the nighttime generation from thermal energy storage cost competitive. Ausra claims the storage of heat deep underground, where the Earth provides containment for the pressures required, will solve that problem, but as far as I know, it has not yet been prototyped. It would certainly be helpful if the DOE contracted with Ausra to prototype it.

  15. Bob Wallace says:

    Sounds like prototypes are underway…

    “Generating electricity around the clock with solar thermal technology relies on storage systems that run turbines long after the sun sets. “Ausra has a very active energy storage R & D group and we will be prototyping a couple of systems this year here in the US,” said John O’Donnell.

    Solar Energy Storage
    This is not a new technology, having been used for plastic manufacturing and petroleum production for a long time. Solar thermal plants have a cost advantage compared to photovoltaic technology because energy can be stored as heat without being converted to another form or relying on batteries.

    “My favorite example in comparing energy storage options is on your desktop,” said John O’Donnell. “If you have a laptop computer and a thermos of coffee on your desk, the battery in your laptop and the thermos store about the same amount of energy. One of them costs about $150 and the other one costs maybe $3 to $5. On the wholesale level, storing electric power is at least 100 times more expensive than storing heat.””

    http://cleantechnica.com/2008/03/27/solar-thermal-electricity-can-it-replace-coal-gas-and-oil/

  16. Cyril R. says:

    Regarding Ausra thermal storage. In the case of storing hot pressurized water, that has been proven: every nuclear powerplant has a boiler which is basically the same thing. The thermal plant would just use many of them (or one or two really big ones). As Bob Wallace points out, many industries use pressurized hot water storage in a boiler, to store/recover required thermal energy for industrial processes because it is simple and effective.

    The only thing that isn’t proven is to do it underground. It’s pretty conventional mining tech though, but even if it doesn’t work they could still build the facility on the surface for a relatively small increase in land requirements.

    Thermal oil is also proven and is cost-effective. But boiler storage is even cheaper, more efficient, and more environmentally benign (it’s water).

    Some people worry about safety. It is true that one of the most proven systems caught fire a long time ago. And pressurized steam vessels might rupture. But this is not a bigger threat than in conventional thermal plants like coal and nuclear. Plus the area will not be public space, it’s off limits fenced area. If the boilers are underground then the pressure of the rock will contain the steam ie it will be inherently safe (the pressures used are not that big for a couple hundred meters of rock and sediment. And rock is a good insulator.

  17. Cyril R. says:

    Regarding hydrogen, the reason it can never be efficient is entropy. One of the best brief explanations is by Paul Dietz here (who is always able to explain difficult concepts with just a few lines):

    http://pfdietz.blogspot.com/2005/11/direct-carbon-fuel-cells.html

    Also not the interesting stuff about direct carbon fuel cells (which would actually deserve the term fuel cell as carbon really is a fuel, not a synthetic energy carrier).

  18. Ronald says:

    That the article on hydrogen for home electrical use got into the magazines Science and Scientific American is sad. I remember seeing something like it advocated in Popular Science magazine 4 years about with every house having a fuel cell and hydrogen stored for it’s own personal use. I can take it from Popular Science, but the other Magazines should be better than that. And that MIT actually had graphics made showing PV’s on a house with both Hydrogen and Oxygen stored in pressurized containers. ouch. To think of the lost energy and cost to pressurize both those things. What were they thinking.

    This website handles the problems and lost energy of using Hydrogen as a fuel, I go back to this article:

    http://www.physorg.com/news85074285.html

    Somebody should quick write an article on using Hydrogen in a regular Internal Combustion Engine, which it can do. If you have a headline, ‘Remarkable Hydrogen Fuel Cell Breakthrough: By using an ICE.’ Then have a smart looking Engineer talking about the tremedous cost saving just found since ICE’s cost something like 50 times less than Fuel Cells.

  19. Bill says:

    Joe Romm: ‘I use the term “solar baseload” for simplicity’s sake. I think most solar baseload companies are looking at six hours of storage, …’

    That’s a very odd definition of “baseload”. Six hours is just enough to cover the afternoon-evening *peak* load.

  20. Cyril R. says:

    “Somebody should quick write an article on using Hydrogen in a regular Internal Combustion Engine, which it can do.”

    We can also burn lithium batteries in a steam engine. That doesn’t mean it’s an efficient proposal, or that this is the best way to ‘use’ lithium batteries.

    If you’re going to use ICE, then you might as well make synthetic fuels. Could be hydrogen, methanized. We have excellent natural gas infrastructure and methane is easy to handle plus the ICE is easier to use with methane. Hydrogen embrittles the engine so you need expensive materials. And since there’s no infrastructure for hydrogen you have to build it. Which will be expensive and take lots of time. Plus it is wasteful to pump hydrogen around as it doesn’t have a lot of energy, you have to pump loads of it around to get reasonable amounts of energy. The pumping losses are severe.

  21. Cyril R. says:

    However, we should realize that most automotive transportation be done with direct electric traction. No hydrogen. The remainder can be synfuels and advanced biofuels. The latter happen to be more viable and cheaper than either hydrogen or synfuels.

  22. Eoin says:

    I wrote about this in the Christian Science Monitor’s environment blog, and after reading your post I totally had to go back and reread my piece to see if I bunged up this story in the way that you said many news outlets did.

    I think I managed to avoid most of the hype (the Monitor’s editorial process has a patented, built-in desensationalizer), but I wish that I had been able to find out how much MIT’s process would actually cost and compare it to current technologies.

    But I think what saved me was that I linked to an article in the Onion that for me captures the MIT researchers’ tone: http://www.theonion.com/content/node/30990

  23. surely if its more efficient, it becomes cheaper, which drives demand, which makes it cheaper still

  24. Here’s the core problem we face from an energy strategy standpoint. There are some vehicle applications that will be well-served by batteries and electric motors; and there are some that won’t. Think ocean freighters. Think aviation. Think even long-haul trucks. Liquid fuel is essential for ocean freighters and airplanes and almost essential for long haul trucking. So the relevant societal question is not the one Romm focuses on – batteries vs hydrogen – because that compares two dissimilar applications – battery vehicles vs liquid fuel vehicles. Instead we need to know what’s the best liquid fuel for vehicles that need liquid fuel. The comparison is really biofuel vs hydrogen. Corn ethanol for biofuel? Not. Sugar cane ethanol? Algae based biofuel? Or hydrogen as a liquid fuel, with the most economical method one can find for extracting hydrogen from water? I don’t know if MIT has the beginnings of an economical answer for hydrogen – I’m only an MBA, not a scientist – but I think one key focus has to be on liquid fuel applications such as ocean freighters and aviation, and when that issue is being discussed, then we get to comparisons of biofuel strategies and hydrogen strategies.

  25. sesli chat says:

    It has been done, but because daytime power fetches a higher price than nighttime power, there is little incentive for companies to do more than prototype thermal storage. That will change when CSP becomes a much larger portion of the grid. The challenge will then to make the nighttime generation from thermal energy storage cost competitive. Ausra claims the storage of heat deep underground, where the Earth provides containment for the pressures required, will solve that problem, but as far as I know, it has not yet been prototyped. It would certainly be helpful if the DOE contracted with Ausra to prototype it.

  26. shop says:

    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

  27. porno says:

    If you’re going to use ICE, then you might as well make synthetic fuels. Could be hydrogen, methanized. We have excellent natural gas infrastructure and methane is easy to handle plus the ICE is easier to use with methane. Hydrogen embrittles the engine so you need expensive materials. And since there’s no infrastructure for hydrogen you have to build it. Which will be expensive and take lots of time. Plus it is wasteful to pump hydrogen around as it doesn’t have a lot of energy, you have to pump loads of it around to get reasonable amounts of energy. The pumping losses are severe.

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