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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Future of energy may lie in photosynthesis

For most of us, helping the environment means recycling, riding our bikes and drinking from reusable canteens. But now, thanks to the work of chemists, it could mean producing our own energy – from water.

On Monday, Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor Daniel Nocera presented his research to the UC Davis community at Giedt Hall in a talk entitled Personalized Energy for One (times Six Billion).

Nocera argued that the key to solving earth’s increasingly unmanageable energy demands lies not in complex structures or massive power plants, but in the natural process of photosynthesis.

“Guys like Al Gore who say that we already have the ideas, we just need to take them off the shelf – they’re wrong,” he said, arguing that current energy sources cannot sustain the 30 terawatts of energy scientists predict we will need by 2050.

Currently, earth requires 15 terawatts of energy. Covering every inch of the planet with wind turbines would yield two terawatts, and building a new nuclear power plant every 1.5 days until 2050 would produce eight.

Nocera claims that sunlight, which beams 800 terawatts of energy onto earth, is the most promising energy source available. The problem, however, is the huge expeanse of storing solar energy. After years of research, Nocera and his colleagues at UC Davis and other universities discovered a cheap, effective method to generate energy by using the sun’s power to split water molecules.

“I want to emulate photosynthesis cheaply,” he said. “Science takes what you think you know and creates something different, [bringing about] a paradigm shift.”

Nocera said that splitting the water of the MIT swimming pool into hydrogen and oxygen molecules would produce energy at a rate of 43 terawatts per second.

“That should give you hope,” he added.

Nocera’s method recombines these water molecules in a fuel cell, allowing them to generate energy continuously, long after the sun has gone down. Ideally, households in the future will potentially contain their own individual fuel cells with the capacity to power the entire home.

The incorporation of cheap metals like cobalt and phosphorus allowed Nocera to make this process cost-effective, a quality he views as extremely important, as it allows poorer countries to utilize his method.

Karsten Meyer, chemistry professor at Friedrich Alexander University in Germany, noted the massive potential of Nocera’s research to change the future of energy production in an article in MIT’s Technology Review [CQ].

“This discovery is simply groundbreaking,” Meyer said. “[For solar power], this is probably the most important single discovery of the century.”

Nocera announced that a prototype for a $28 hand-built electrolyzer allowing individuals to produce their own energy will be distributed in India in the next two months.

“I have to say, I have incredible optimism right now,” Nocera said in a New York Times interview. “We as a society have finally set off on a path to meeting the energy challenge in a sustainable way.”

MEGAN MURPHY can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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