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Shares research with U of T audience

Professor Nocera's solution for creating cheap energy mimics the photosynthesis process. (Photo by Caz Zyvatkauskas)

During a recent visit to the University of Toronto, Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said the global energy picture wasn’t good. In the next 40 years the globe will need more energy than will be available through traditional sources such as oil, coal and gas. 

Nevertheless, he did have a solution that relies on our most abundant energy resource: the sun.  To make use of the sun, Nocera and his team at MIT invented the Artificial Leaf, a carbon neutral energy source that works by emulating the photosynthesis process.

The leaf is a silicon cell that acts as an electrolyser and catalyst in one.  When placed in water and exposed to sunlight it separates the water into hydrogen and oxygen in a way that is similar to what plants do.

“Sunlight plus water makes fuel,” said Nocera. “I’m a real throwback,” he added, talking about using a process that has worked for two billion years.

Unlike the solar panel technology in use today, the leaf is a method of direct solar fuel production. It goes from light to fuel directly without the use of wires, thereby driving down the cost of using solar energy as a fuel source.
“It’s the guts of a solar panel. The light comes in and makes a wireless current,” said Nocera. “In a solar panel you put wires on it to get the current out and I’ve short-circuited all of that by putting the catalyst right on [the cell] without any wiring.”

The leaf (picture, right) works beautifully. “Electrolysers are on the shelf and can be hooked up right now,” said Nocera. However, a device to collect the hydrogen and the oxygen still needs to be developed.

His real goal is to provide cheap, efficient energy to developing countries. 

Although photosynthesis emulation is not a new idea, coming up with a cheap solution for clean energy is.  Nocera noted that while most of the western world can afford the expense of scientific research and development, developing countries can’t. This frugal innovation mindset also explains why the Artificial Leaf has caught the attention of the Tata Limited, one of India’s largest multinational corporations that then invested in Sun Catalytix, the company Nocera founded to bring his technology to market. 

A country like India is unencumbered by legacy technology technology that has been built over time with a substantial investment of time and money. Consider, for instance, India’s adoption of a national phone system. Instead of implementing land line technology, they looked for the most efficient, cost-effective solution and leapfrogged over the old telephone system and implemented cellular phone technology.

Conversely, in the West, we’re tied to old technology and because we’ve already invested a lot in our current energy infrastructure we won’t be giving it up any time soon.

“It’s all about market adoption,” said Nocera. “Developing countries don’t have energy so they can adopt more quickly, they don’t have an old energy grid like us.”

“It’s like new found snow; there are no footprints,” he added.
See the Artificial Leaf in action or read the science behind Nocera’s work. Also, enjoy an MIT Tech TV interview  with Professor Dan Nocera.