Each year, Time magazine chooses 100 people from the world community to be included on its list of the world’s most influential people. MIT Professor Daniel G. Nocera joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. President Barack Obama, Sen. Ted Kennedy and many other household names on this year’s list for his contributions to the field of environmental science.
Each year, Time magazine chooses 100 people from the world community to be included on its list of the world’s most influential people.
MIT Professor Daniel G. Nocera joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. President Barack Obama, Sen. Ted Kennedy and many other household names on this year’s list for his contributions to the field of environmental science.
Nocera, a Winchester, Mass., native, recently identified a sustainable and non-toxic way to use the sun’s energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gas. He hopes the stored gases can then be recombined in a fuel cell to create a carbon-free “personalized energy” source for every home.
Nocera has lived in Winchester with his wife Karen since 1997. Their son Nathaniel is attending UCLA and the couple’s younger son Ethan is headed to the University of Colorado this year.
Nocera recently discussed his scientific breakthrough and his place on Time Magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people with The Winchester Star.
Q: How do you conceptualize being included on a list of the 100 most influential people with the likes of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and leaders from across the world?
A: We are kindred spirits in a way. I have pushed for the concept of personalized energy (PE), akin to personal computers. In PE, solar [energy] is collected at the individual or personal level. Over the summer, I made a significant discovery — a way to store the sun when it isn’t shining. This discovery sets the stage for the large-scale deployment of solar energy on the distributed level. The discovery will impact people the most who live in the non-legacy world. Because energy use scales directly with wealth, solar PE will put individuals, in the smallest village in the developing world and in the largest city of the developed world, on a more level playing field. So in this sense, Obama, Hillary and I share a common goal.Q: Tell me about your work at MIT. What is the ultimate goal of your research into using water to create hydrogen fuel, and how could it change the world?
A: Over the past summer, I made a discovery that brings PE one big step closer. Personalized energy will be possible only if solar energy is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hence, the key enabler for personalized energy is inexpensive storage. We figured out how to do artificial photosynthesis (sunlight to fuel) outside of the leaf. The key here is that we can do this inexpensively, efficiently and in a highly ‘manufacturable’ way. We made a new compound that can split water to hydrogen and oxygen when the compound is fed with electricity from a photovoltaic.
How will personalized energy based on water-splitting chemistry come to fruition? In the simplest configuration, a photovoltaic on your roof will generate the power you need to live when the sun shines. The surplus electricity from the photovoltaic can be fed to our newly discovered water-splitting compound (called a catalyst) to generate hydrogen and oxygen, which are stored locally.
At night (or when the sun isn’t out), the stored hydrogen and oxygen can be recombined in a fuel cell to give the electricity needed to power your home at night. And I forgot to mention that electric car in your garage; its battery will be recharged while you sleep.
Thus your home becomes its own solar power station and solar gas station. Note that you don’t use up any water — it is a closed cycle: sun and water to hydrogen and oxygen, which are recombined is a fuel cell to get water and energy (to power your home). In September, I will be in National Geographic holding the amount of bottled water in my hands to power the house that is behind me in the picture. Guess what? Only a little over a gallon of water is needed.Q: How were you informed of Time’s decision to include you on its list of the world’s 100 most influential people, and what were your first thoughts?
A: I was informed several months ago by Time, but they asked me to keep it quiet, so I did. My first thought was that the message of PE is finally resonating in the general population.Q: Are their any interesting perks to being included on Time’s list? A: Hanging out with Oprah. Q: When do you envision your research becoming a viable option to power our planet?
A: 8.1254 years. This is said with a smile. I was on CNN and responded to this question with the answer “10 years.” The first question from someone in the public was “Why do scientists always say 10 years?” I thought about it — and that was a very insightful comment ... so it is 8.1254 years (we scientists at MIT like being precise). More seriously, I have some of the most influential people in the world now working with me to bring PE to our planet. Many of them are the same people that brought you personal computing ... you know there names, because you use their computers every day. In addition, we have some very influential people in the non-legacy world who have the resources to do large-scale manufacturing. Things are moving very quickly. We should do a follow-up in 8.1254 years. I will be very disappointed in myself if I am not far down the road in providing PE to this planet.Q: What does the future hold for the environment, and what can be done by each of us to help protect it?
A: I am well known for doing global energy calculations ... and I could depress you if I told you what is in store ... if we don’t move quickly. Many of your readers might feel helpless, and in a way, they are ... they do not have the opportunities that I do to solve the problem. So let me (and my colleagues from around the world do our job). What you can do at the individual level is empower the science and technology community to get the job done. Vote for those who put the energy agenda high on the list of political priorities, and just not for the environment but for U.S. National and our planet’s global security (the world is going to become a nastier place when all are vying for a limited supply of fossil fuels). And spend the time to get to know the issues — in a genuine and sincere way. The person with the correct numbers has the power.Q: How much time do we have to change course and put the planet on the path of sustainability?
A: The pessimist says it is already getting late. I am an optimist. Why should I have such a sunny outlook? Because of this fact — we need only one third the amount of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool to be converted to hydrogen and oxygen per second to solve the world’s energy problems. A lot of new discovery (such as my catalyst) is needed to make this happen, but only one-third an Olympic-size swimming pool.
Eric Tsetsi can be reached at 781-674-7731 or firstname.lastname@example.org.On the Web More information about Nocera’s research can be found at web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/oxygen-0731.html.
Go to www.time.com/time/specials/packages/0,28757,1894410,00.html, for the Time magazine article.