Polaris Venture Partners Backing MIT Chemist’s “Solar Fuel” Startup

4/16/09

(Update: this story was updated at 10:15 a.m. today with additional financial information on Sun Catalytix.)

Yes, that’s solar fuel. MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera has been widely lauded for developing a breakthrough technology that could harness the energy of the sun to provide a clean source of fuel. Xconomy has now learned that Polaris Venture Partners is backing a young startup called Sun Catalytix, which Nocera founded to commercialize his discovery.

Polaris general partner Amir Nashat is in charge of the venture firm’s interest in Sun Catalytix, which was quietly formed last year and is operating in the Boston area, according to sources close to the firm. Nashat declined to comment on the company, saying that its founders have decided not to talk to the press about the stealthy operation at this time. (Nashat himself got his doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT, though most of the Polaris investments he’s overseen in the past were in biotech startups.) Sun Catalytix has completed a $700,000 seed round of financing, according to the VentureExpert database, cited by news website PE Hub after Xconomy posted its story on Sun Catalytix this morning.

Nocera has gained notoriety for his technology that offers a novel way to utilize solar energy and could be used to make hydrogen gas with two plentiful and nonpolluting resources: sunlight and water. And it bodes well for the commercial prospects of Nocera’s technology that a top-tier venture firm like Waltham, MA-based Polaris has stepped in to back Sun Catalytix. But by all accounts, there are technical hurdles to clear before Nocera’s solar fuel technology is ready for commercial use. Also, market factors such as the economic meltdown have slowed growth in the solar energy market and created barriers for adopting new solar technologies, an industry expert says.

Nocera’s exciting discovery is a catalyst that, according to MIT, consists of an electrode placed in water containing cobalt and phosphate. MIT explains that when electricity from any source enters the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate create a film over the electrode, forming a catalyst that separates oxygen gas from the water and leaves behind hydrogen molecules. Then a platinum catalyst is used to convert the hydrogen molecules into hydrogen gas, which could power fuel cells and further efforts to lower global dependence on petroleum-based fuels. The vision is to use sunlight to enable these chemical reactions, creating a new way to tap solar power for energy.

As of last summer, commercializing the technology depended on overcoming at least a couple of technical challenges, one of which is … Next Page »

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