The Future of Solar Power In a Glass of Water

Oxygen and hydrogen are both excellent energy sources, and we've got tons of both on Earth. Unfortunately, that energy is mostly tied up in water molecules that require still more energy to split apart. But what if you could split water molecules with a modest electric current, under conditions you can duplicate on your kitchen counter? Researchers at MIT have discovered a process, using the simple apparatus above, that could put a solar water refinery in every home.

Here's the MIT recipe for splitting water molecules. Take one glass of water that's pH neutral. Add a dash of cobalt and a pinch of phosphates. Apply a mild current via a conductive glass electrode. As the cobalt-phosphate mix forms a film on the electrode, a steady stream of oxygen bubbles will appear. Meanwhile, hydrogen ions collect at another electrode.

The Future of Solar Power In a Glass of Water

The crazy thing is, the MIT researchers don't really know why this works (they have a lot more research to do). They suspect the cobalt-phosphate is somehow catalyzing the reaction, but they need to figure out how to scale it up and collect the byproducts efficiently. They think they'll have marketable technology in ten years.

So how will you use this when the time comes? The current required could be supplied by solar cells. The resulting hydrogen and oxygen could be stored with relative ease, making this process an important new way to store and transport solar energy. There are lots of things you could do with all that O and H - like powering the hydrogen fuel cell in your car, perhaps. And what's the byproduct of a hydrogen fuel cell? Water. Images by steakpinball and EurekAlert!

Water refineries? [EurekAlert!]