Give It Up for the Sun King

MIT's Daniel Nocera has a recipe for taking solar power mainstream. It all starts with a tall glass of water

    Photo: Photograph by Shana Novak

THE SMARTEST MAN ALIVE is in the house. It's early fall, research-team recruitment season at MIT's graduate department of chemistry, and three dozen first-year brains are assembled in a conference room to hear about the spots available in Professor Daniel Nocera's lab. Most of these presentations are fairly straightforward—here are my groundbreaking projects; here are my research needs—but tonight's vibe is a little more Animal House than Revenge of the Nerds. A spread of Redbones barbecue fills one long table; another is loaded with Stella Artois on ice. And when the lights dim and the video begins, the soundtrack is pure eighties cheese: Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero."

Nocera's graduate assistants have put together an affectionate, if slightly brutal, send-up of their mentor's achievements, including his prowess as wine enthusiast (cue footage of the prof spilling on his shirt) and grill master (see the flummoxed genius randomly twisting knobs). "He's the planet's only hope—and your only choice for research adviser!" the captions crow. "He's well-endowed—with research money, that is!" With this, Nocera, in mirrored aviators, struts into the room throwing money—a cool $100 million in $100,000 bills Xeroxed up with a glamour shot of Dr. N.

I've never seen this side of MIT's 51-year-old Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy. But I've known he's a rock star. For several years, Nocera has been the sleeper hit at environmental conferences thanks to his clear—and startling—illumination of our vast energyissues. Planet Earth now uses 15 terrawatts of energy a year; by 2050, scientists estimate, we'll need 30. How are we gonna get there? First, Nocera says, we could cut down all the plants in the world (except those needed for food) to make biofuel: That would yield seven terrawatts. We could build a new billion-watt nuclear plant every 1.6 days until 2050: eight terrawatts. We could cover every inch of land on earth with wind turbines: two terrawatts. Or, he says, we could just use the sun, which beams 800 terrawatts onto the earth's surface—as much every hour as the entire planet uses in a year.

"My idea is a simple one," Nocera has said. "If I take that sunlight and I take water, I can solve the entire energy problem."

That's pretty much what Nocera opened the door for last July, when he and postdoc fellow Matthew Kanan announced a cheap, practical solution to one of solar power's main hurdles: energy storage. They've come up with a system that can use the sun's oomph to split water molecules into their constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. The idea is that those elements could then be recombined in a fuel cell, releasing energy to run a household on cloudy days and at night, when ordinary solar systems stop producing.

Using electric current to break down H2O—a process called electrolysis—is nothing new; high-school teachers have been demonstrating it for decades. But the classroom trick requires huge amounts of electricity. While commercial electrolysis is a much more efficient process, it's a wildly expensive way to produce hydrogen.

Nocera's setup, inspired by nature's own energy-creation process, photosynthesis, could cost tens instead of thousands of dollars, and it can work at room temperature, using ordinary materials, in a home. By adding a chemical catalyst (cobalt and potassium phosphate) to plain water, his technique splits the molecules using just a volt or so of electricity. Coming up with a scheme like this has been a holy grail of chemistry, which is why biochemistry pioneer James Barber, of London's Imperial College, called it "a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of mankind."

If Nocera's method proves scalable, it will be the first affordable, nonpolluting means of producing that clean fuel of the future, hydrogen, which in nature is almost always found in compounds with other elements. By laying the groundwork for cheap solar-energy storage, it could also pave the way for decentralized solar power on a massive scale.

"Cracking the storage nut would be huge," says Peter Rive, co-founder of SolarCity, the country's largest residential solar-panel-installation company. "In fact, it's required for us to be able to get completely off of fossil fuels." Using current lead-acid battery storage, Rive calculates, you'd need about 2,000 pounds of batteries to store enough energy to power an average house at night or during a period of extended cloud cover. Nocera thinks he can do it with about a gallon of water.

Here's how it would work. During the day, photovoltaic panels would power your house and send the excess energy to your basement or garage, where it would split a small container of water into oxygen and hydrogen. After sundown, the hydrogen and oxygen would be recombined in a fuel cell, creating electricity to run your house (and charge your electric car) and restoring the water to its original state. "All of a sudden," Nocera says, "your house has become a power station." The system would be cheap and endlessly renewable, and it would work as well in rural Africa as in urban America. This is the key: For the 3 billion people who livein the developing world, Nocera's system could be a cheap, self-contained ticket to energy independence.

Of course, all this is still a ways down the road. "I'm giving it five years," says Nocera, "but much of that is beyond my control." He's working with other innovators and entrepreneurs to overcome the obstacles that remain: developing a better way to compress hydrogen for storage and building a more efficient and inexpensive fuel cell. Meanwhile, wannabe funders and entrepreneurs hoping to develop the first commercial applications parade through Nocera's lab, vying to partner with him and MIT, which holds the patent on his discovery.

When I visit Nocera in his office, the day after the grad students' video show, he's juggling a conference call, a class, and a meeting with scientists from the European oil company Eni, a major contributor to his annual $2.5 million in research funding. I haven't been there long when his assistant, Allison Kelsey, pops her head in. "That guy from the Netherlands who's been e-mailing you—the wind guy? Well, he's right out here."

"He's here?!"

"Yes. And the American Chemical Society is on the phone. And who's ordering the sandwiches for the Eni scientists? Oh, and I need a raise."

Nocera reacts to this with the relaxed assuredness of a Deadhead, which is exactly what he is. His bookshelf is filled with bootleg CDs, and he's wearing what looks like a Hawaiian shirt with a groovy ursine pattern. "See?" Nocera says. "Dancing bears!"

Another surprise is that the man who's spent his career trying to replicate photosynthesis isn't much of a tree hugger. "Actually, I hate nature," he says. "I'm very fastidious. I love to look at it, but to go out there and, like, camp out?"

Yet nature is where he found his solace—and his career. His father, Daniel Sr., worked in retail as a women's-clothing buyer for Sears and then J.C. Penney, and the family moved at least a dozen times in his grade-school years, from Massachusetts to Rhode Island to Manhattan and everywhere in between.

"So what you do," Nocera tells me, "is you turn to something that's constant. And that was science. I used to do this thing I called ‘going on a field trip.' And the field trip was a one-meter-by-one-meter piece of earth, right? 'Cause you could then get a microscope . . . and in just that little piece of land, you could keep going in the dirt and find a whole new world."

"That's what research is: You teach yourself stuff," Nocera says. "The true, true discovery—you've got to just do it yourself. You can't read about it."

This seems like an important lesson to­day: the power of pure curiosity and focus, not just for today's indoor video kids or those of us who watch nature mostly from our desks, but for poor broken-down America as it looks for new traction on the global economic road.

Moving forward, Nocera believes, is really a matter of commitment. If Americans would get serious about funding renewable energy—instead of "throwing money down the drain in stock markets"—the innovations would come. It's like he told his graduate students, as they cranked up the fog machine and began the arduous task of disposing of the beer: "We went to the moon! Doesn't it seem easier to do what I'm doing here?"

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