Video: Researchers "Mimmic Photosynthesis" to Solve the Energy Storage Problem

A team of scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are working on ways to store the sun's energy in fuel form, to be used anytime.

For our latest issue of the magazine, the Energy Issue, I spent a lot of time and, well, energy looking at innovations in energy storage and transmission. Solve these, we argued, and the overly abundant amounts of clean, renewable energy that shines down on our planet and blows across it every day can make the leap from marginal, intermittent power sources to steady, reliable base load energy sources.

On the storage front, there's a truly incredible variety of work underway. A couple months ago we looked at one MIT project to store the sun's energy as fuel, which is a particularly effective means of storing energy in a transportable fashion. (There's a good reason all of our cars have run on gasoline for all these decades.) Fuels (like hydrogen, the most common example) have a much higher energy density than batteries and other mechanical devices, so they could well turn out to be ideal for energy storage.

It turns out that MIT scientists aren't the only ones looking at the fuel storage solution. A team at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis is working on a similar problem.

"We need more efficient ways of storage electricity," says Bruce Garrett, one of the project's leads. "And the most efficient way of storing energy is in chemical bonds." Like the MIT team, the PNNL scientists are looking at photosynthesis as a model. Here's a video of their efforts:


Basically, the team is working on finding the best catalysts to turn electricity into chemical bonds, and then convert the chemical bonds back to electricity. Right now, the catalysts that do the job are prohibitively expensive (which is why we're not yet all cruising around in hydrogen cars), but, according to the PNNL's website, "enzymes that participate in photosynthesis in Nature are more efficient and use inexpensive, abundant metals such as nickel and iron." The science behind it all—proton relays and electron transfers—is enough to make my head spin, but the scientists, thankfully, make the end goal clear as day.

"The ultimate goal," says Garrett, "is to get us off of fossil fuels."