Hydrogen fuel cells, which expel only water and heat as waste, are an appealing way to generate clean electricity, but the present technology relies on expensive platinum catalysts. Moreover, most of the hydrogen available today is derived from fossil fuels, so hydrogen is not nearly as clean as it may seem. This year, researchers made notable progress in transcending both limitations.
Looking for an alternative to platinum, Jean-Pol Dodelet of the National Institute of Scientific Research in Quebec, found inspiration in the human body, which uses iron-based molecules to extract energy from food. In April his group described an enhanced iron-based catalyst for fuel cells. It works just as well as platinum-based ones but could be considerably less costly.
Chemist Daniel Nocera at MIT is also looking to nature, trying to find a renewable way to generate hydrogen. He has developed a different catalyst—one that, when coupled with a photovoltaic cell, splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using energy from sunlight, just as plants do during photosynthesis. Nocera is working to scale up the system in hopes that it will bring clean, abundant energy to poor people living off the grid. “With this,” he says, “the only thing you’re tied to is the sun.”
See the engaging talk on energy storage Nocera gave at the DISCOVER and NSF-sponsored series of congressional briefings, The Road to the New Energy Economy.