If wind- and solar-generated electricity are changing the way we look at our relationship to the grid, the transformation is only visible when the sources of that generation are in full force or, more specifically, when the gusts are strong and the sun is high. Storage technology is the key to enabling renewables to overcome their intermittent nature. Two researchers at the University of Calgary have achieved what they consider to be a breakthrough in this dynamic, one that will allow homeowners and energy providers to efficiently and cheaply store power generated from the sun and wind.

Curtis Berlinguette, associate professor of chemistry, and Simon Trudel, assistant professor of chemistry, recently published their findings in the journal Science.

In the article, they reveal the new method they developed for making catalysts that convert electricity into chemical energy. With the help of a catalyst, an electrolyzer device can use an electrical current to create a chemical reaction that splits water into its two constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen. Those chemicals can be stored and later reused as fuel to generate electricity again.

In conventional thinking, catalysts are typically made from rare, expensive and toxic metals in a crystalline structure. The researchers abandoned this approach and instead used simpler production methods. They turned to more abundant metal compounds, including iron oxide, more commonly referred to as rust.

The results of this experimentation, according to the researchers, was a new set of catalysts that perform as well as conventional materials but cost 1,000 times lower.

The two professors are so confident in their new breakthrough they patented the technology and created their own company. They hope to have a commercial product ready for market by 2014.