Sun Catalytix, an American company founded by a MIT professor, is working on a low-cost ‘solar to hydrogen’ power system and plans to launch it within the next 18 months. The product which was announced about two years ago has attracted millions of dollars in investment from the Indian industrial giant Tata.
The system works by utilizing solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then stored to be used later. While there is nothing new in this technology, the way in which the the system does these things is completely revolutionary. The system can use water from any source, be it river water, sea water or even waste water. The company claims to that the system is highly efficient and is capable of powering a house with only two bottles of water from ‘any source’.
The conventional technology used for splitting water into hydrogen is costly as it requires extremely high energy to break the bonds between the water molecules. Commercially available electrolysis technologies are expensive as they use precious metals like platinum or operate at high pressures or temperatures making them practically and economically unviable for small-scale use. Professor Daniel Nocera, however, thought of a more natural way to achieve the same results. The hydrogen-splitting technology closely resembles the natural processes found in plant and bacteria. The system uses cobalt phosphate-based catalyst which operates at atmospheric pressure which is significantly advantageous when compared to the conventional catalysts.
The hydrogen produced can be stored in a secured container and can be recombined with oxygen in a controlled manner, in a fuel cell, to generate electricity. The water produced as a by-product can be used again to generate hydrogen.
Such power systems would be extremely beneficial for people living in developing and poor countries. Roof-top solar panels can be used to operate such a system. Thus, during the day power would be generated directly from the solar panels during the day and during night from the hydrogen-powered fuel cell. Communities living in rural and remote areas can also benefit greatly from this technology as it could lead to a distributed power generation revolution.
The Tata Group, which pioneers in low-cost technologies, has taken serious interest in the technology. In October this year, the Tatas invested $9.5 million in Sun Catalytix. According to some reports, the investments are actually much higher and sources claim that Tata Group’s chairman Ratan Tata is a co-owner of the company. In an interview to an Indian news channel, Ratan Tata said that he has immense interest in the new energy technologies like electric cars.
If the Tata Group launches the Sun Catalytix power system in India it could prove revolutionary in the Indian power scenario. The Tatas, through their joint venture with BP in TataBP Solar, are one of the leading solar panel fabrication company in India. Combined with their solar panels, probably financed with a soft loan mechanism, TataBP solar can market this energy system to millions of rural homes in India.
The final cost of the entire system would be higher than $20, owing to the costs of solar panels, storage equipment and fuel cell. But the cost of hydrogen generation would be much cheaper than the conventional technology which costs up to $12,000 per Kw, according to Prof Nocera.