“I’m going to show you something I haven’t showed anybody yet,” said Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry at MIT, speaking this May to an auditorium filled with scientists and U.S. government energy officials. He asked the house manager to lower the lights. Then he started a video. “Can you see that?” he asked excitedly, pointing to the bubbles rising from a strip of material immersed in water. “Oxygen is pouring off of this electrode.” Then he added, somewhat cryptically, “This is the future. We’ve got the leaf.”
What Nocera was demonstrating was a reaction that generates oxygen from water much as green plants do during photosynthesis–an achievement that could have profound implications for the energy debate. Carried out with the help of a catalyst he developed, the reaction is the first and most difficult step in splitting water to make hydrogen gas. And efficiently generating hydrogen from water, Nocera believes, will help surmount one of the main obstacles preventing solar power from becoming a dominant source of electricity: there’s no cost-effective way to store the energy collected by solar panels so that it can be used at night or during cloudy days.
Solar power has a unique potential to generate vast amounts of clean energy that doesn’t contribute to global warming. But without a cheap means to store this energy, solar power can’t replace fossil fuels on a large scale. In Nocera’s scenario, sunlight would split water to produce versatile, easy-to-store hydrogen fuel that could later be burned in an internal-combustion generator or recombined with oxygen in a fuel cell. Even more ambitious, the reaction could be used to split seawater; in that case, running the hydrogen through a fuel cell would yield fresh water as well as electricity.
Storing energy from the sun by mimicking photosynthesis is something scientists have been trying to do since the early 1970s. In particular, they have tried to replicate the way green plants break down water. Chemists, of course, can already split water. But the process has required high temperatures, harsh alkaline solutions, or rare and expensive catalysts such as platinum. What Nocera has devised is an inexpensive catalyst that produces oxygen from water at room temperature and without caustic chemicals–the same benign conditions found in plants. Several other promising catalysts, including another that Nocera developed, could be used to complete the process and produce hydrogen gas.
Nocera sees two ways to take advantage of his breakthrough. In the first, a conventional solar panel would capture sunlight to produce electricity; in turn, that electricity would power a device called an electrolyzer, which would use his catalysts to split water. The second approach would employ a system that more closely mimics the structure of a leaf. The catalysts would be deployed side by side with special dye molecules designed to absorb sunlight; the energy captured by the dyes would drive the water-splitting reaction. Either way, solar energy would be converted into hydrogen fuel that could be easily stored and used at night–or whenever it’s needed.
Nocera’s audacious claims for the importance of his advance are the kind that academic chemists are usually loath to make in front of their peers. Indeed, a number of experts have questioned how well his system can be scaled up and how economical it will be. But Nocera shows no signs of backing down. “With this discovery, I totally change the dialogue,” he told the audience in May. “All of the old arguments go out the window.”