Scientist charges up UMD crowd with energy model for the future

by Steve Urbon
Source: The Standard Times
Daniel Nocera has invented what he calls an artificial leaf, and he’s not talking about those plastic ficus trees we had in the ’70s.
No, Nocera drew a capacity crowd in the UMass Dartmouth auditorium this week because he has managed to produce nothing short of artificial photosynthesis, creating fuel from sunlight and water, the way plants do.
Nocera, an MIT professor who has been working toward this all his academic life, has more than a little Madison Avenue in him, and he is selling the vision that his artificial leaf could and should upend our whole approach to the energy demands of the world in the next 40 years.
In addition to the academic press, Nocera made a huge splash in the popular press last week with a lengthy profile in The New Yorker magazine. Celebrity status sure doesn’t hurt, although it draws some jealous wisecracks in the comments sections.
I attended his talk and left there hoping that for all the obstacles still in his way, and forgiving some of the hyperbole, that Nocera is right about this. Because it would be tragic if the scientific advance he has made were to be a time-wasting dud.
But how could it be? Nocera has unlocked a big part of the mystery of how plants turn sunlight into energy, tapping into the limitless power of the fusion source that is the sun.
And as the world’s population continues to grow, Nocera isn’t aiming his science at what he called the “legacy” nations that have the economies and the demand for fuel. He’s aiming instead at the developing world, which will be competing for fossil fuels before long, causing major disruptions around the planet unless an energy source can be found for them that isn’t full of carbon.
That’s where the playing-card-sized scraps of silicon and catalytic material Nocera has developed come in. Sitting in water — even dirty water — with the sun shining down, these bits of material begin developing bubbles on either side. On one side, pure oxygen. On the other, pure hydrogen. As the cycle proceeds, it produces purified water.
And it’s all without wires, all without caustic chemicals, all without exotic materials, all without moving parts.
It shouldn’t be hard, Nocera thinks, to develop personal-sized energy cells that store the hydrogen by day and use it to run a small turbine generator by night. If you live in America, you might not be impressed. If you live in Africa or India, it would likely be a very different story. That’s why Nocera has enlisted Indian industrial tycoon and philanthropist Ratan Tata as a business partner. Billions of cheap, reliable, no-maintenance artificial leaves spread across continents generating fuel from sunlight would change everything.
But Nocera doesn’t start there. He starts by alarming his science-minded audience with some projections. If Earth’s energy needs are to be met 40 years from now without a breakthrough technology, forget about wind and waves. We’re going to need a new nuclear power plant every day and a half for four decades. We’re going to need to consume all the biomass on Earth to a depth of 10 meters. We’re going to have to dam every river.
And it still won’t be enough.
But Nocera’s optimism isn’t dimmed, and he gave the students a reason to pursue his vision. It’s a lesson from the turn of the 20th century, when urban planners were projecting that horse manure would be three stories deep in every street in London and New York in just a few years.
Catastrophe was averted by the invention of the automobile, a happy accident, really, but a monumental change for the better, at least as far as manure is concerned.
I suspect those students will heed Nocera’s advice that what we hear from the entrenched energy interests is nothing but fear-mongering to boost profits and maintain the status quo. “Nobody tells you the truth,” he said.
Up against that, Nocera has a long road ahead of him, scientifically, politically and economically.
But if anybody has a better answer, not to mention a better breakthrough, I have yet to hear it. I hope he recruits an army of scientists. And I know by the looks on their faces that some of the students in that hall have already enlisted.
Meanwhile, that new wind turbine over there is starting to look so last week.
May 16, 2012 12:00 AM
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