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May. 06, 2011

Fauxtosynthesis: Clean energy of tomorrow?

by Neil Wagner

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One of the biggest obstacles to using solar power on a massive scale is our lack of a proper storage system — after all, the sun doesn’t shine 24/7. Now MIT Chemistry professor Dr. Daniel Nocera has announced the development of a new process that just may end up solving that storage conundrum. With abundant, affordable materials, the process uses sunlight to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen, which (once a system is developed to collect the gases) can be stored and later used in fuel cells, microturbines, generators and more.

This artificial leaf provides a man-made version of photosynthesis. Or “fauxtosynthesis,” as I like to call it.

I got the chills when Nocera recently told Ira Flatow that this invention is well beyond the science. In other words, the artificial leaf clearly works. The MIT crew now needs to find a way to capture the hydrogen and oxygen, as well as give prototypes the time to prove the process is reliable over a long haul. The short term results look good, so things are off to a great start. In addition, the prototype is 10 times more efficient than a real leaf, and could eventually be as much as 100 times more efficient.

Nocera’s interview with Ira Flatow

Chemist and author Alyson Kenward reports from the American Chemical Society annual meeting via Climate Central:

..pretty impressive. Nocera’s presentation in particular was a show-stopper.

(Nocera) says that if solar power technology can be mass-produced on the cheap, there won’t be any reason for developing countries to build massive power plants and thousands of miles of power lines. Instead, each household can have their own energy source. All they will need is a copy of the artificial leaf (albeit one larger than Nocera’s test version) and about 16 ounces of water.

How much water would be needed altogether to power the planet, if an inexpensive version of the technology is manufactured so everyone on Earth can have it? About the same amount as what’s in MIT’s Olympic-sized swimming pool, says Nocera. And this volume could be a one-time demand because, in theory, the water would be remade again in the fuel cell.

LEARN MORE ABOUT WHAT ON EARTH?…

Interview: Katie Kline, Communications Officer at Ecological Society of America interviewed me via Skype for the ESA’s Ecotone blog. Read and hear it here.

Video: Bebbo and Kito were featured in one of Jim Parks’ terrific Today’s Green Minute episodes. See the video! Learn more about it.

About Neil Wagner

Neil Wagner's What on Earth? comic strip uses humor to discuss global warming.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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