Using the sun combined with nature's way of turning solar power into life-sustaining energy can be captured, artificially induced and could provide enough power in less than an hour to run the house, the car and bring on an era of true energy independence.
The power of solar is not on the grand scale of collectors spread over square acres in the west desert, says Daniel Nocera, a widely cited chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is scheduled to speak at Utah State University this week.
"Each household could be its own little power station," Nocera said Sunday.
Using the principle of photosynthesis and more precisely duplicating the storage process that plants use to stay healthy at night when they're not being fed directly by the sun, Nocera's research published this past July appears to have answered the abiding problem with solar power the daily interruption of power at night.
"By finding a way to mimic what all those leafy things out there called weeds do at night for energy, we can provide the electrical needs of the house and the family car, and it can be done at room temperature and very inexpensively."
Nocera, who is the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT, became known globally this summer when he and colleague Matthew Kanan made the breakthrough discovery of a highly efficient technique for electrolysis of water using inexpensive materials.
The ultimate goal isn't just to make electrolysis more efficient, but to induce all the functions needed for artificial photosynthesis: Instead of the power coming from the solar panels, energy would be captured directly by a photochemical process and transferred directly to the electrocatalyst process.
By splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen then recombining them to create energy, the pair overcame the impractical nature of hydrogen as an electrical power storage medium. Between 30 and 50 percent of the energy is lost under conventional electrolysis methods.
His approach was novel but based on Nocera's previous research in condensed matter physics.
The main hitch of solar, wind and ocean waves is not the capacity to to generate enough energy or economics but the lack of an efficient and low-cost method of storing it.
Right when the sun goes down is right when a household's power needs go up. So without some way of storing enough power for those load requirements and without a method of tapping it that didn't take half the energy available, the research has been stuck.
When the research was published, solar energy and alternative fuel researchers labeled it a breakthrough. A German scientist called it "probably the most important single discovery of the century."
Utah's high-desert terrain makes solar an ideal energy source, and the commercial availability not to mention viability is still a ways off, Nocera said.
The energy loss is still a focus of truly refining the technique of taking electricity to hydrogen/oxygen and back to electricity again. Other storage methods such as lithium-ion batteries have storage/energy conversion ratios that make them about 80 percent efficient.
They're efficient but don't last very long, and they wear out fast, Nocera points out. The hydrogen method offers virtually unlimited storage capacity, and the process described by Nocera is "self-healing" with minimum replacement and maintenance costs.
Also, research into using hydrogen to carry energy rather than electricity, refueling is as fast as filling up your tank with gasoline. Batteries in hybrid cars must be plugged in for several hours or must by swapped with charged replacements.
Nocera's lecture, "Powering the Planet by Artificial Photosynthesis" is scheduled Wednesday at 4 p.m. in Eccles Science Learning Center, Room 046 at USU."Dr. Nocera is a pioneer in our understanding of mechanisms of energy conversion in biology and chemistry," said USU chemistry professor Lance Seefeldt, seminar host. He's a frequent scientific contributor to network, cable and public television programs, including NOVA, ABC's "Nightline" and Discovery Channel News. "We're very fortunate to have a scientist of his caliber on campus."
If you go . . .
What: Daniel Nocera's lecture, Powering the Planet by Artificial Photosynthesis
When: Wednesday, 4 p.m.
Where: USU's Eccles Science Learning Center, Room 046