A research team at MIT claims they have discovered a process that will make solar power practical for mass production of energy, even when the sun doesn’t shine. Using photosynthesis as a guide, the team believes it has discovered the “nirvana” of exploiting the sun’s power to generate a reliable, stable, and safe source for electricity:

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.

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.”

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.

I’ve been through the cold-fusion roller coaster before, so color me skeptical at the moment. The study got published yesterday, and Nocera and Kanan will have to endure the scrutiny of their peers. However, if this works and is as cheap as people believe, it could revolutionize energy production, at least for certain applications.

Solar energy’s drawback has always been storage. Solar cells produce electricity with good efficiency when the sun shines, but at night or under overcast conditions, production becomes unreliable. The same is true for other environmental-based alternatives such as wind power, hydro, and other “boutique” offerings, as the article calls them. Fuel cells work well, but the big problem is in generating the hydrogen cheaply and efficiently. Current electrolyzers were either too expensive or used dangerous and damaging materials.

This solution combines the best of both worlds. When the sun shines, the photovoltaic energy can produce enough electricity to power a house or a car as well as photosynthesize the elements of a fuel cell. Instead of storing electrical energy in a battery, the fuel cell retains the elements needed to provide power when the solar panels or wind turbines drop production rates.

If this pans out, it could decentralize electrical production and allow each household to run independently from the grid, or even sell excess power back to the grid as some do now. Electric vehicles would become much more practical with fuel cells rather than massive batteries, and distribution of fuel-cell hydrogen would no longer be required. It could spell an end to most emissions problems and make the US completely independent of all foreign oil sources in a short period of time.

That is, of course, a mighty big if.  It could also be cold fusion.  We need to continue drilling oil in the near term to ensure energy security and protect our economy.  But it’s worth watching.