Each Home, Business Entirely Sun-Powered; MIT’s Daniel Nocera: Sticking with His Vision

If Daniel Nocera’s energy vision prevails globally, each home and business will have its own, entirely sufficient power unit, charged by the Sun.

Industry-produced greenhouse gases will be vestiges of the old order, as solar-based “personal energy” systems power everything from televisions to plug-in electric cars and produce only water as a byproduct.

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The electric grids that order our living patterns, and lock us into our current fossil fuel-based society, will shrivel into history. And the world’s 1.6 billion impoverished people who live off the modern grid might leap over a major step of industrialization entirely.

That all may sound grandiose, indeed stretch the bounds of the plausible.

But that would be the point.

“It’s my vision, and I’m going to stick to it,” Nocera, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of his goal to bring large-scale, revolutionary solar technology to market within 10 years. “We can do this. We live in America. We went to the Moon.”

This summer, Nocera and his research partner, postgraduate student Matthew Kanan, announced what was hailed internationally as a major breakthrough in solar storage technology: a chemical process that uses solar energy and a catalyst to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, which then can be run through an electricity-producing fuel cell during dark hours.

‘Enormous Implications for Future Prosperity’

One German academic called it “the most important single discovery of the century.” James Barber, a biochemistry professor at Imperial London College, said it had “enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind.”

It’s all the result of a quest that Nocera, 51, has been pursuing for many years, endlessly testing electrodes and catalysts and anything that might solve the inherent problem for any solar device: intermittent sunlight. That problem has long prevented renewable energy sources like solar and wind from challenging traditional fuels.

All along, Nocera has been looking to the natural world for inspiration, imitating the elegant processes of plant photosynthesis to produce and store power from solar energy for human purposes.

In 2001, Nocera scored a big win in the laboratory: he first figured out how to use a catalyst to pry hydrogen atoms from a liquid. Seven years later – after long nights and weekends of frustrating experimentation – he finally solved the riddle and created his own formula for solar power.

His breakthrough process is reasonably straightforward: Begin with a photovoltaic solar panel that charges an electrode in water; use cobalt and phosphate to help catalyze a reaction and liberate oxygen gas; then use platinum as another catalyst to split off hydrogen.

Reverse the process, run the oxygen and hydrogen through a fuel cell, and you regain electricity, even when the sun is not shining. Nocera explained it all on YouTube.

Nocera said in a phone interview with The Yale Forum that the “simplicity” of the operation makes it potentially viable and competitive in the energy marketplace. He says his research now is focused on creating “direct fuel,” by eschewing the photovoltaic cell altogether, and trying to use a thin-film technology to derive solar electricity directly from the chemical process.

The Allure of Personalized Energy

The upshot of that – besides the fact that it all might make obsolete millions of dollars of photovoltaic industry research – would be to bypass the need for the pricey and labor-intensive manufacture of silicon. But a direct fuel process, he concedes, remains a work in progress.

The technical wrinkles aside, Nocera noted, it’s the far-reaching social implications of his chemical breakthrough that truly fascinate the media and the public.

“It really was this personalized energy that got people’s attention,” he said.

As research and development funds continue to be in jeopardy across the U.S., the example of successful investment may also deserve some attention. Nocera’s lab work was done as part of MIT’s Solar Revolution Project, which received a $10 million grant this past spring from the National Science Foundation and Chesonis Family Foundation.

Alison Kwok, a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon and co-author of The Green Studio Handbook: Environmental Strategies for Schematic Design (Oxford), said in an e-mail interview with The Yale Forum that Nocera’s discovery could change the way we live.

“This work has great potential to be used in practice as a low-cost way to create hydrogen fuel to power building systems and operations,” she wrote. “[S]mall fuel cells can be placed inconspicuously onsite, not unlike the size of a dehumidifier or water heater for single family dwellings.”

However, Kwok pointed out that the safe storage of hydrogen – a highly explosive gas that would be stored in homes – would be crucial in order to make this work. In addition, making the component parts affordable would be key, she said.

Seeking to Replace Platinum with Cheaper Catalyst

Nocera also concedes that the platinum he used as a catalyst is too expensive to realize the process on a mass scale and that the platinum must be replaced with a cheaper alternative.

(Worth noting: a group of researchers at Australia’s Monash University also reported this summer that they had built a fuel cell that uses a polymer substance instead of platinum.)

Nocera contrasts the shift from an electric grid to “personal energy” to the experiences of the computer revolution, in which technology changed from bulky mainframes to personal computers and the Internet. He said that model of decentralization and social empowerment is what excites serious technology investors, including venture capitalists like those of Silicon Valley’s Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, which helped give Google its start.

The traditional energy companies are “stuck in the mud” right now, Nocera said, with some good, cutting-edge ideas getting shelved as corporations remain conservative in their outlook. That’s why he’s looking to the people who backed the information technology revolution to fund the green energy future.

People in the energy sector always say “Yes, but …,” Nocera said. “With the computer technology sector, it’s ‘Yes, let’s go.’”

In Nocera, perhaps, they’ve found a catalyst to get started.

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: john@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @wihbey)
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One Response to Each Home, Business Entirely Sun-Powered; MIT’s Daniel Nocera: Sticking with His Vision

  1. John Wihbey says:

    Thanks for writing in, John. I take your comment to mean that Nocera’s idea of “personal energy” would enable economies to decentralize further, allowing more home businesses and more flexibility. I think that could be true, though I didn’t get deep into that question with Prof. Nocera. By the way, MIT’s “Technology Review” magazine has a nice cover piece this month about Nocera’s pioneering work: http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/21536/