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Artificial Leaf
March 29, 2011 11:36 AM   Subscribe

"A practical [inexpensive] artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades. We believe we [Sun Catalytix] have done it." Video: Professor Daniel Nocera at MIT
posted by stbalbach (74 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Only God can make a tree."
CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 11:39 AM on March 29, 2011 [22 favorites]


Placed in a single gallon of water in a bright sunlight, the device could produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country with electricity for a day,

Ah yes, the Single House in Developing Country Per Day metric, very common in countries that don't use Imperial units.
posted by geoff. at 11:43 AM on March 29, 2011 [22 favorites]


Now all you need is a way to store the Hydrogen....

And prove to the fuel cell makers its worth their time.

Ulf Bossel made a really significant announcement at the most recent European Fuel Cell Forum, which was the week of July 3rd and the announcement was that any discussion of hydrogen and PEM fuel cells will not be continued at the European Fuel Cell Forum in Lucerne
posted by rough ashlar at 11:47 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Somewhere in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a chemist in a tattered and stained lab-coat raises a fist toward the heavens.

"They laughed, and said my work didn't even have the fig leaf of respectable research. Well, I'll show them. My new artificial leaf is more powerful than that of any fig tree, more powerful than they can possibly comprehend! I'll show them all!"
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:48 AM on March 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


Ah yes, the Single House in Developing Country Per Day metric, very common in countries that don't use Imperial units.

How many football fields of solar panels will I need for this technology?
posted by Riptor at 11:55 AM on March 29, 2011 [8 favorites]


Now all you need is a way to store the Hydrogen....

Use it continuously. Be on the grid at night. No solution has to solve 100% of the problem. In fact, it is better if it doesn't because heterogeneity is resilient.

And prove to the fuel cell makers its worth their time.

If they won't sell me one, I'll just make my own.
posted by DU at 11:58 AM on March 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


How many libraries of congress could it power?
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:58 AM on March 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Wouldn't it be ironic if this technology became so prevalent that we ended up pumping far too much oxygen into the atmosphere...
posted by schmod at 12:01 PM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wouldn't it be ironic if this technology became so prevalent that we ended up pumping far too much oxygen into the atmosphere...

Gigantic worldwide fireball, but without the benefits of killing Sontaran clones and being up in the stratosphere.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:02 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thing is, we'd need to recombine the hydrogen to use it... hello, water!

No excess O2, sorry...
posted by JB71 at 12:04 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you could hook this leaf to a RepRap, you could reduce the carbon problem pretty well.
posted by DU at 12:06 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't it be ironic if this technology became so prevalent that we ended up pumping far too much oxygen into the atmosphere...

Gigantic worldwide fireball, but without the benefits of killing Sontaran clones and being up in the stratosphere.


WE ARE HE PSYCHLO HOMEWORLD!!!
posted by munchingzombie at 12:06 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow. All that from one softball-sized leaf.
posted by brundlefly at 12:07 PM on March 29, 2011


Be curious how closed the system is. As JB71 says, when the hydrogen is oxidized, water comes back out. The text of the article implies that it uses one gallon per day.

Also be curious how robust the system is as far as the water it sits in...can it use river water or brackish water, or is it going to require ultra-pure water to avoid contaminating the "leaf"?

Anyway, pretty cool. I'll wait to pump my fist until someone pulls a sheet from the first generator at a trade show.
posted by maxwelton at 12:08 PM on March 29, 2011


They are certainly bold claims - it will be exciting to see what they end up making. The fact that Sun Catalytix have a bunch of peer reviewed papers is promising.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 12:09 PM on March 29, 2011


How many football fields of solar panels will I need for this technology?

Probably none if it's even close to competitive with solar technology already on the market. Like the tech that's currently running the community of 250 off-grid US residences described here.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:09 PM on March 29, 2011


There's also some coverage of this new tech on SciAm here, FWIW.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:13 PM on March 29, 2011


I'm struggling to see where the "leaf" part of this is .. There's not photosynthesis, as best I can tell. It's not clear where the electric potential is coming from. Water is being electrolysized, got that, and new catalysts are helping that, got that .. but ..

The rsc article essentially says "we don't know how photosynthesis works, so we're back to pv cells" and that this thing still needs to be plugged into the wall somehow ?

(so I think calling it a leaf is bogus .. )
posted by k5.user at 12:17 PM on March 29, 2011


All these comments and not one 420 joke? This is my surprised face.
posted by Splunge at 12:20 PM on March 29, 2011


This is cool, as it means that when my future grandchildren ask, "Pappou, what was Ozzy singing about in 'Sweet Leaf'?", I can be like "Oh, it was simply his ode to the dream of clean electricity, which came to fruition in 2011," and thus avoid a potentially awkward conversation about listening to Sabbath and getting SO HIGH
posted by Greg Nog at 12:21 PM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Nocera was on Science Friday a little over a year ago talking about the catalyst that's the key to the leaf. Really exciting that a marketable product has come out of it, especially given all the vaporware in renewable energy tech.
posted by electroboy at 12:21 PM on March 29, 2011


geoff.: “Ah yes, the Single House in Developing Country Per Day metric, very common in countries that don't use Imperial units.”

Yeah, this is a common problem. We deliver millions of pounds of food to poor countries every year, but hundreds of thousands of people still starve because they can't convert them to kilograms. It's unconscionable, I'm telling you.
posted by koeselitz at 12:23 PM on March 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


All these comments and not one 420 joke? This is my surprised face.

This is cool, as it means that when my future grandchildren ask, "Pappou, what was Ozzy singing about in 'Sweet Leaf'?", I can be like "Oh, it was simply his ode to the dream of clean electricity, which came to fruition in 2011," and thus avoid a potentially awkward conversation about listening to Sabbath and getting SO HIGH


Ha!
posted by Mister Fabulous at 12:23 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm struggling to see where the "leaf" part of this is .. There's not photosynthesis, as best I can tell. It's not clear where the electric potential is coming from. Water is being electrolysized, got that, and new catalysts are helping that, got that .. but ..

Imagine a photovoltaic cell, turning photons into electric potential. Imagine an electrolysis rig, using electric potential to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, thus creating stored chemical energy.

What these folks have done, as far as I can tell, is constructed a single device that performs both functions: instead of converting sunlight into electricity into chemical energy, the photoelectric effect itself drives the electrolysis, via some funky catalyst they've invented. Instead of a PV cell that generates electricity, they have a cell that electrolyzes water.

I think.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:36 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of Ursula Le Guin's short story The New Atlantis, wherein a group of renegade physicists discover a super solar cell and are promptly jailed by the government because truly cheap, off the grid power is too threatening.
posted by Frowner at 12:38 PM on March 29, 2011


This reminds me of Ursula Le Guin's short story The New Atlantis, wherein a group of renegade physicists discover a super solar cell and are promptly jailed by the government because truly cheap, off the grid power is too threatening.

Exactly what I was going to say. If this was 1998 he'd (Danial Nocera) would end up dead, officially blamed on mold in his home.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 12:45 PM on March 29, 2011


He expects to develop an effective prototype for the leaf in the next two to three years.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:45 PM on March 29, 2011


I swear I read the articles.

Someone explain this to me. From the first article it seems like there are different parts of the turn sun to electiricity process. What are these parts, exactly? I don't get it. From that same article it sounds like parts of this are kind of trivial to do, parts are hard but solved but not solved with sufficiently cheap materials, and parts are solved but require electricity to run which seems to defeat the whole purpose. Is that right? Which parts are which? Which parts does the new artificial leaf solve? Doesn't that mean there are more bits to solve even with the artificial leaf?

Assume I have heard the word "fuel cell" but don't quite understand what it is. Now assume I don't quite understand how turning water into oxygen and hydrogen gets electricity.

Finally, a gallon of water per third world person or presumable a few gallons for us privigied power-hogs sounds like it would not create a problem where fresh water supply would be an issue. Is that correct? And presumably if fresh water is the output as some have said then we're not really losing fresh water?

Seriously, I'm fascinated and I can't wait to power my computer guilt free from a glass of water, but I don't understand.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:48 PM on March 29, 2011


How many football fields of solar panels will I need for this technology?

About a baker's dozen.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:51 PM on March 29, 2011


If only I had a penguin...: I can't wait to power my computer guilt free from a glass of water

All it needs is a fresh cup of really hot tea, and turn it on...
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:53 PM on March 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Photosythesis is not very energy efficient to start with, so a ten-times gain over the average plant is still in the single percents for mass conversion. You'll still need a lot of football fields.
posted by bonehead at 12:55 PM on March 29, 2011


tea is a source of Brownian motion. Now where's my nutrimat ?
posted by k5.user at 12:56 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wiki claims 3-6% efficiency for photosynthesis, with a theoretical limit of 25%.
posted by electroboy at 1:00 PM on March 29, 2011


The SciAm article linked above by saulgoodman seems to provide more specific answer a few of the questions that were posed in this thread:

Q: Does it require clean water?
A: "The device is dropped into a bucket of water, or even a muddy puddle, and placed in direct sunlight."

Q: How much electricity does it actually produce?
A: "Nocera says this leaf could provide up to 30 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day, on par with the typical American household's electricity use, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration."
posted by Hairy Lobster at 1:08 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


How many libraries of congress could it power?

English or Metric Libraries of Congress?
posted by The World Famous at 1:11 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


No excess O2, sorry...

Damn it! Cheap, clean power and the ability to huff O2 would have made this perfect.

Ok, so in revision two, can we get more power, and have a byproduct of, whiskey maybe? That'd be good.

He expects to develop an effective prototype for the leaf in the next two to three years.

Promising as it sounds, as with all things like this, as far as I'm concerned, it remains vaporware until there is a finished product.
posted by quin at 1:16 PM on March 29, 2011


If only I had a penguin, I can answer part of your question..

Assume I have heard the word "fuel cell" but don't quite understand what it is. Now assume I don't quite understand how turning water into oxygen and hydrogen gets electricity.

This part is basic chemistry. When oxygen and hydrogen combine to form water, energy is released because the energy state of water is lower than that of oxygen and hydrogen individually (i.e. the reaction is exothermic).

The reverse process (what this fuel cell is doing) requires energy to happen. It uses energy from the sun (in a perfectly efficient world, the same amount of energy that you get back out of it) to split water into its component parts.

Think of this as a battery, with the potential energy being stored as hydrogen and oxygen, and when you combine them, you get water and some energy.


Finally, a gallon of water per third world person or presumable a few gallons for us privigied power-hogs sounds like it would not create a problem where fresh water supply would be an issue. Is that correct? And presumably if fresh water is the output as some have said then we're not really losing fresh water?

The only water you lose is from evaporation, so no, it won't 'use up' water. Agriculture uses 70% of freshwater, and if you don't need potable water, as they claim, it gets really easy to obtain the quantities they mention. Hardly a drop in the bucket of water use, har har.
posted by zug at 1:18 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


If only I had a penguin: I'm not going to explain the parts that I'm not quite sure how they work, but here's the basic deal with hydrogen energy and fuel cells. Bare with me.

Hydrogen can be an energy source. You can burn it, and get heat from the reaction. Combusting hydrogen combines it with oxygen, forming H2O and releasing heat. Water is the product of that reaction, sort of like CO2 (and other stuff) when burning hydrocarbons. Now, we can also go the other way. You can also separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, to get that fuel. The reason we can't use lakes of water instead of gasoline for our cars is that pesky "conservation of energy". It actually takes just as much energy to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen as the amount of energy you'd get from the burning later. Instead of burning, there are also other ways of causing these transitions with chemicals, catalysts, and stuff like that, but the basics of the physics are pretty much the same. Hydrogen is never really going to be a real fuel source, because there's not a bunch of accessible free H2 around we can find and burn like there is with oil or natural gas.

BUT! Hydrogen can still be useful with fuel cells. Instead of comparing hydrogen to gasoline, compare it to a battery. You put energy into a battery, and then you can get it back out later. A fuel cell is basically a little canister of hydrogen that spits out electricity. Energy is first used to "charge" the cell with hydrogen, and then later you can use it and get it back out.
posted by floam at 1:20 PM on March 29, 2011


as far as I'm concerned, it remains vaporware until there is a finished product.

Normally I'd agree, but it seems pretty promising that the basic components of the system have been published in respectable journals.
posted by electroboy at 1:20 PM on March 29, 2011


Doh, should have previewed.
posted by floam at 1:21 PM on March 29, 2011


Here's the link to the research page. He's not published anything on this yet, making running the numbers a bit difficult.

That 30kW-hrs/day (for what area? 1m2? that seems reasonable given his numbers) compares favourably to palm oil (biodiesel) or surgarcane (bioethanol) crops at 5-6 kW-hrs/square meter/day. Both of these are peak efficiency crops; corn or wheat or soy or canola plants are significantly worse bioconverters. So this is about 6 times better than the best plants. BTW, Sugarcane conversion is about 8% efficient, amazing for a plant.
posted by bonehead at 1:21 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wiki claims 3-6% efficiency for photosynthesis, with a theoretical limit of 25%

That's the theoretical limits for the chemical reaction. For the more useful number, look at the bioconversion efficiencies doen the page. Those are the ones that matter in the practical sense.
posted by bonehead at 1:23 PM on March 29, 2011


Normally I'd agree, but it seems pretty promising that the basic components of the system have been published in respectable journals.

My comment comes across like I'm more down on the idea than I really am. If it works I'll be the techs biggest cheerleader, but the phrase "in the next two to three years" has practically become a dog-whistle to me for vaporware products; they are always almost ready for primetime.

So, my great hope is that in two to three years we see something awesome, but history has demonstrated that I shouldn't hold my breath.
posted by quin at 1:27 PM on March 29, 2011


It seems to me that there's a hell of a lot of money to be made in explaining why this is a terrifying threat to our children's safety.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:45 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, my great hope is that in two to three years we see something awesome, but history has demonstrated that I shouldn't hold my breath.

Don't ignore the political component here, though. If it becomes conventional wisdom that this (or any similarly promising) tech is nothing more than vaporware, that's what it will be, regardless of the merits. For new tech to make it to market requires enough social momentum and political support that investors take it seriously enough to take financial risks on it.

We've been stymied by the socio-politics of new energy tech in incalculable ways since at least the 70s in the US. And the reality is, there simply is no science so unassailable that the credulous can't be led to undue skepticism--couple that with the fact that there's a huge market in promoting reactionary skepticism these days on the behalf of establishment interests, and you end up with an ideal system for killing certain kinds of socially beneficial innovation. That's why there are still state legislatures debating the merits of teaching creationism and why it took years for the scientific consensus about the effects of smoking to have any meaningful legal or social weight. Not to mention the near constant, pathological power-grappling that surrounds basically any scientific result related to environmental issues.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:46 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm cautiously optimistic mostly because Nocera is a pretty prominent researcher and this clearly isn't a press release from some unknown company that claims to have invented something revolutionary with no trail of published articles or prior works.

I'd say the biggest obstacle to alternative energy sources is that fossil fuels are cheap and we already have the infrastructure in place. My guess is that this won't be cheap until the fuel cell angle is worked out, but it certainly has promise.
posted by electroboy at 1:59 PM on March 29, 2011


avoid a potentially awkward conversation about listening to Sabbath and getting SO HIGH

Just tell 'em you got to be as old as you are because of the hemp oil which cured your cancer from the reactors in Japan that looked like a Dali painting. Perhaps tell 'em that the 3rd eye in their forehead that is open makes 'em look smart.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:02 PM on March 29, 2011


history has demonstrated that I shouldn't hold my breath.

1) Cuz you'll pass out and then stop holding your breath.
2) Going from research -> Pilot plant -> Mass manufacturing -> Cheap enough so the metric of "poor folks in poor villages can afford it" as cited in the press is historically a long road.

Right now the 'poor folks using solar' can get/use many of the links here. http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/Projects.htm
posted by rough ashlar at 2:08 PM on March 29, 2011


So, the water splitting/recreation cycle is an elaborate battery? Is it more efficient than standard batteries?

Bare with me.

Sorry, but with all this chemistry going on, I'm keeping my clothes on.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:00 PM on March 29, 2011


I'm not an expert at this so please correct me where I'm wrong, but I've been reading about Sun Catalytix for awhile and I'll take a stab at clarifying some things. The leaf metaphor is probably confusing people more than helping.

First, fuel cells. A hydrogen fuel cell produces electricity by taking stored hydrogen and using a catalyst to allow it to combine with oxygen in the air and create water. In this chemical reaction, the hydrogen loses some of its electrons -- which is the electricity we're looking for.

This all sounds very magical until you realize that getting free hydrogen for this reaction isn't easy. As of now, you need to use quite a bit of energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, more than you'll be getting back later from the fuel cell.

This is where Sun Catalytix comes in. Their invention uses fairly cheap materials to build a catalyst that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen when exposed to sunlight. You get free hydrogen, well, for free. Put it into your fuel cell whenever you'd like to get your electrons back to power your house.
posted by the jam at 3:06 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd say the biggest obstacle to alternative energy sources is that fossil fuels are cheap

This has been true for decades, but the specter of carbon regulation has also moved investors away from fossil fuels. No new coal plants have been built in the past 6 years or so, even though around 300 were planned during the later Bush years, they are all since scrapped, investors went with wind and other projects instead. It also helps renewables are getting cheaper by the year and competitive with fossil fuels.

Just as the climate deniers only need to seed doubt of the science to win the public relations game, climate-change believers just need to seed the possibility of regulation which is enough to make investors think twice and look at alternative energy solutions instead of making long-term investments in new coal and oil projects. Probably by the time we actually get carbon regulation the game will be over, the industry will have already sorted itself out and the regulation will pass because it won't be much of a shock to the economy at that point. Seems to be the American way anyway.
posted by stbalbach at 3:07 PM on March 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


I have always imagined a utopia where each building has its own power supply, and each building uses wireless to mesh with its neighbors. If you make every house and office autonomous, a lot of political and corporate clout is removed. That's a warning.

But if this tech checks out, aspiring third-world countries and forward-thinking first world countries will endorse it and countries that try to keep it down will find themselves a generation or two behind. A fairly easy way to flip the first and third worlds, perhaps.
posted by maxwelton at 3:15 PM on March 29, 2011


Don't ignore the political component here, though.

This.

A least a part of why solar hasn't moved faster than it has is because the US is so invested in centralized power production.

Don't think that ConEd and their brethren don't see these decentralized solutions as competition. They'll fight it in the backrooms with everything they've got.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:30 PM on March 29, 2011


It feels like I say that every time the next latest greatest green technology press release comes out. But, there is no product yet, just hype. This isn't an artificial leaf! that is pretty misleading. This is just a possibly low cost catalyst that when plugged in to a source of power splits water, presumably more efficiently then electrolysis, and at a neutral pH. It could be run from a dirty coal fired power station or solar cells, it does not care, its not a leaf. It's also not a power generator, its just a way of theoretically storing power as hydrogen, so you have to ask if it is more efficient or cost effective than just charging batteries directly.

So in order for this to actually you know power a home in India you'd need to add both solar panels, hydrogen storage and a fuel cell. So not that simple or IMHO cheap. So I'm going with the view that it's totally oversold BS bordering on dishonest.
posted by Long Way To Go at 3:42 PM on March 29, 2011


How many football fields of solar panels will I need for this technology?

Doubtless an area the size of Wales.
posted by wreckingball at 3:58 PM on March 29, 2011


(previously)

Nocera is a real-deal scientist, although I'd get more excited about the science if he didn't come off as such a salesman all the time.

This catalyst is indeed fascinating, although there are lots of hurdles before it starts saving the world.

Here's an interesting piece of criticism that came out when the first Science paper was published.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 4:22 PM on March 29, 2011


Bit confused. Direct sunlight delivers around a kilowatt per square metre, tops, in terms of actual energy from actual photons, at least as I remember it.

At the equator, with no clouds, that's 12 kilowatt-hours per metre per day. Any latitude can't do better than that over a year, and the further away from the equator you get the less good it gets.

A playing card is smaller than a square metre. So how does that pony up to 30 kilowatt-hours per day?
posted by Devonian at 4:26 PM on March 29, 2011


This could be a huge game changer. Hydrogen is not THAT hard to store, especially from this kind source. Any leakage loss (and hydrogen, being a really small molecule, leaks a lot)could be made up easily by a large container and more 'leafs'.

Hydogen fueled internal combustion engines are easier to design than gasoline or diesel engines since the fuel is already a gas and doesn't need to be atomized to the ideal stoichemtric ratio to burn well. And it may well just be easier and cheaper to use fuel cells and electric power in leiu of internal combustion engines for transportation energy source.

The big problem with hydrogen is there are no hydrogen 'mines' or such and it is expensive. I have long thought one of the solutions to peak oil is a whole bunch of nuclear plants or photovoltaic arrays dedicated to electrolysis to provide hydrogen. Either choice has significant problems but would technically work. IF this works out it is a much better, more elegant solution that can be used.

BTW I can see several ways for existing energy corporations to make money from this, and I don't really buy that the corps or opposing every alternative to fossil fuels anyway. And most global warming skeptics DO admit air pollution is a problem and this could really cut down on that problem so I don't think you will get a lot of opposition from them.

I am skeptical also about this, but you know there is a saying about innovation that you can't predict very well what the innovation will be, and when the innovation is needed it will appear-when you need railraods, railroads appearl. This just might be the ticket replacing a great deal of our fossil fuel infrastructure at an acceptable cost.
posted by bartonlong at 5:01 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am skeptical also about this

I was sorta also, but then saw it was seeded by ARPA (same people who seeded creation of the Internet (ARPA-net)), has backing by some powerful VCs, is in talks for production(!) with a large firm in India, created by a MIT professor of good reputation, based on well known existing technology (he only made it cheaper is all). On the downside 2-3 years is a long time yet, so it may still not work out, there's a lot to making something work in the lab to a commercial product. OTOH there are 3 or 4 other labs working on this same idea (artificial photosynthesis) via different techniques.
posted by stbalbach at 5:14 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does this mean we get to bulldoze all the forests now?
posted by Sys Rq at 5:48 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Devonian, the "leaf" is purportedly theoretically capable of storing 30kw a day, but as Long Way To Go and others point out, it would still need a energy input from solar panels or elsewhere. The articles do seem a bit woolly on this stuff. Doesn't make it pointless of course, but I think it's another example of reporters getting a tad over-excited by the prospect of miracle technology.
posted by howfar at 6:04 PM on March 29, 2011


So how does that pony up to 30 kilowatt-hours per day?

It uses FM* technology.

*(Fscking Magic)
posted by rough ashlar at 6:05 PM on March 29, 2011


Previously.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:15 PM on March 29, 2011


If only I had a penguin..., The Wizard of Osmosis kindly requests that you stop trying to look behind the curtain while he's presenting his Miraculous Invention(tm).

Sorry, mark me down for "suspecting pure BS", given the level of detail versus hype.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:01 PM on March 29, 2011


This is amazing news. Let's hope it pans out, and push for more investment and research. It seems possible. Remember, TANSTAFL doesn't mean you can't get more energy out than you put in; we do that all the time with fossil fuel (that's what makes them economical). There's no reason we can't convert solar energy this efficiently, and hydrogen fuel cells produced on this scale could meet many of our energy needs.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:04 PM on March 29, 2011


...and made of widely available, inexpensive materials — like silicon, electronics and chemical catalysts...

Why, I found some electronics buried in my backyard just the other day! Wired science writing, don't ever change. Wait, do.
posted by sysinfo at 9:39 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


To be fair to Wired, electronics really are widely available. And if you're not picky about what sort of electronics you want to buy, they are quite inexpensive, too.
posted by The World Famous at 12:01 AM on March 30, 2011


From one of the articles: Nocera estimates that the world consumes 14 terawatts (TW) of power today. By 2050, it will need 16TW. If his solution works, said Nocera, it would need a swimming pool full of water every day to meet the world’s electricity needs.

Assuming perfect energy conversion efficiency, generating 14TW would require burning on the order of 100 billion kilograms of hydrogen and oxygen a day. That's a very big* swimming pool.

Regardless of the scientific merits of this device, the reporting has buried it under so much bullshit that I can't even figure out what it's supposed to do. Save the huddled masses, I guess.

* 1 sq km by 100 m deep.
posted by ryanrs at 3:56 AM on March 30, 2011


Does this mean nuclear power can make like a tree and leaf?
posted by Damienmce at 5:16 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Assuming perfect energy conversion efficiency, generating 14TW would require burning on the order of 100 billion kilograms of hydrogen and oxygen a day. That's a very big* swimming pool.

I don't think this would be suitable for all power use. We would still need big power plants and a strong central grid, but this does have the potential to be a viable liquid transportation fuel, and this would be huge gain in both pollution, greenhouse gas and dependance on middle east oil.

Nuclear, gas, coal, PV solar, Thermal solar, wind, hydroelectric would still be necessary to provide power for industry, and areas that do not have adequate solar resource for this, and some other liquid transportation fuel will likely be necessary. However if you have a source of cheap hydrogen, synthesizing a more stable hydrocarbon like methane would probably be significantly cheaper.

This is not a cure all for our energy problems, but it could be a significant new tool to solve some of our problems. We will see if it works out.
posted by bartonlong at 10:23 AM on March 30, 2011


One thing I don't get is why so often when the subject of renewable and non-fossil fuel based energy tech comes up, do I hear some sucker on NPR talking about how, from a farmer's perspective, the "environmentalists" are killing the industry and the economy?

The argument, crudely, goes like this (and it's a doozy): The costs of agricultural inputs (fertilizer, for example) have skyrocketed in recent years, contributing to inflationary increases in the prices of agricultural outputs. Groceries are now more expensive as a result.

This, supposedly, is the fault of environmentalists who have been pushing against further investment in petroleum-based energy tech. Petroleum is becoming more expensive, so the story goes, because "environmentalists" have been slowing down the expansion of petroleum production.

But this argument ignores a crucial fact: The widespread adoption of renewable energy tech would in effect massively decrease market demand for petroleum based fuel products. If there's less demand for petroleum, then petroleum will be cheaper. And if petroleum is cheaper, it will decrease the input costs for agricultural production even if the agricultural industry itself is still heavily petroleum dependent. So if we adopt renewables on a wide enough scale, food production costs--and by extension, costs on the grocery store shelves--would decline, not increase.

How have farmers been tricked into supporting the side of the oil industry even against their own financial interests?
posted by saulgoodman at 7:25 AM on March 31, 2011


I don't want to derail the thread, but I guess I will to answer saulgoodman's question from my point of view. I am not a farmer, however my father was, my uncle was, and I have 3 cousins that currently are. For the first time since our family came to the carolinas before the revolutionary war there isn't a family farm, so i think i can offer some insight into why farmers react this way to enviromental agendas.

Farmers tend to be very conservative (not in the religous right way, but actual websters dictionary way) about everything. Farming is hard, dirty, danegerous and risky. When you guess right, plant the right crops, get good prices on your inputs, the weather breaks right (this one is why i think farmers are so religous) you can make a very nice living, maybe even get rich. However it usually doesn't work out perferct so most years you just get by. They see new technologies that disrupt such an important resource as oil as very threatening because it is unkown its effects and yet one more risk in their lives and liviliehood.

The second thing is a lot of enviromentalists seem to be profoundly ignorant of what daily life on farm is like but they sure do like telling land owners what do with their land. Farmers don't like this. They don't like this from people that do know what daily life is like and what it takes to run a farm (and by farm I mean agriculture of all types). Quite often the outsider is right about what they are telling the farmer but the farmer has not been the best educated person historically. This last one is rapidly changing and there is a very large growth in 'green' farming for lack of better term. They don't really have a lot of choice as the inputs are getting more expensive, thers isn't a lot of room to raise prices on their products, so effeciency is the name of the game.

After quitting farming, my father got into the farmer banking business. I developed a strong dislike for ranchers in the southwest throughout the 80's. Their sense of entitlement in the face of a changing world was very distasteful even to me at a fairly young age (preteen to young teenager). In a lot of ways I tend to be conservative (once agian certainly not in the modern political meaning) about how i approach life but this experience with very rural farmers and ranchers gave me a strong dislike for the worldview that nothing should change and the world should try to accomodate the lifestyle i want for myself. In the end this last viewpoint is at the heart of the attitude you are asking about.

Do keep in mind that most farmers aren't going to give a reporter the time of day or if they do they are going to mess with him for they fun of it, so take what you hear as unlikely to represent most farmers as interviewing a member of the communist party is to represent mainstream liberal thought in this country.
posted by bartonlong at 9:19 AM on March 31, 2011


They see new technologies that disrupt such an important resource as oil as very threatening because it is unkown its effects and yet one more risk in their lives and liviliehood.

For the reasons I argued above, I think this attitude reflects a very mistaken and self-defeating view of the actual situation.

Petroleum costs are on the rise everywhere for a whole host of real-world reasons (from regional political instability to naturally declining production) that go far beyond mere opposition from "environmentalists"--and in fact, if the renewable energy agenda of environmentalists was embraced, it should be possible for farmers to secure more than enough petroleum for short to mid-term agricultural uses at significantly reduced costs.

The oil industry for years has been letting production and refinery capacity that they could already be expanded decline while setting up environmental activists to be their political scape goat for what are ultimately financially motivated business decisions.

If they think renewables pose a threat to their access to cheap petroleum, Farmers are being duped, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:42 AM on March 31, 2011


Thanks for the insights from your personal experience BTW, bartonlong. Some of my family worked in the agricultural industry (as field laborers, not on the management side), and it's always interesting to hear about the different points of view of industry stakeholders. I'm not surprised by your characterization of the "conservative" streak in farming culture; that was definitely also true of my grandfather's family, who lived and worked as sharecroppers at one time.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:46 AM on March 31, 2011


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