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Rays Of Hope For Energy Woes

Daniel Nocera, PhD, professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, left, with one of his graduate students, Steve Reece, second from left, look at glowing molecules that have captured the laser light in water, Friday, July 29, 2005 at his laser lab at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., which some day they hope to split into hydrogen and oxygen to be used in a fuel cell.
AP
Daniel Nocera arrives at his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by 7 a.m., goes home 13 hours later — where he often reads papers or e-mails students much of the night — and returns to his labs on weekends.

Vacations?

None, really, unless you count chemistry conferences.

After all, trying to save the world is hard work.

If you ever wonder about how the world will produce enough
energy to supply 9 billion people by mid-century — and whether that can be done without pumping off-the-charts amounts of carbon
dioxide into the air — meet one of the minds trying to produce an
answer.

Nocera, 48, is trying to achieve an old, elusive dream: using
the bountiful energy in sunlight to split water into its basic
components, hydrogen and oxygen.

The elements could then be used to supply clean-running fuel
cells or new kinds of machinery. Or the energy created from the
reaction itself, as atomic bonds are severed and re-formed, might
be harnessed and stored.

There is a beautiful model for this: photosynthesis. Sunlight
kickstarts a reaction in which leaves break down water and carbon
dioxide and turn them into oxygen and sugar, which plants use for
fuel.

But plants developed this process over billions of years, and
even so, it's technically not that efficient. Nocera and other
scientists are trying to replicate that — and perhaps improve on it in decades.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it's
generally locked up in compounds with other elements. Currently, it
is chiefly harvested from fossil fuels, whose use is the main cause
of carbon dioxide emissions blamed for global warming.

And so while hydrogen fuel cells — in which hydrogen and oxygen
combine to produce electricity and water — have a green reputation,their long-term promise could be limited unless the hydrogen they consume comes from clean sources.

That's where Nocera's method comes in. If it works, it would be
free of carbon and the epitome of renewable, since it would be
powered by the sun. Enough energy from sunlight hits the earth
every hour to supply the world for months. The challenge is
harnessing it and storing it efficiently, which existing solar
technologies do not do.

"This is nirvana in energy. This will make the problem go
away," Nocera says one morning in his MIT office, where the
Grateful Dead devotee has a "Mean People Suck" sticker on his
window. "If it doesn't, we will cease to exist as humanity."