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Shift happens: Will artificial photosynthesis power the world?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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One drinking-water bottle could provide enough energy for an entire household in the developing world if Dan Nocera has his way. A chemist from M.I.T. and founder of the company Sun Catalytix, Nocera has developed a cobalt-based catalyst that allows him to store energy the same way plants do: by splitting water.

"Almost all the solar energy is stored in water splitting," Nocera told the inaugural ARPA-E conference on March 2. Solar Catalytix is among five companies awarded government funding to develop "direct solar fuels," dubbed "electrofuels" by ARPA-E, the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for transformational energy technologies. "We emulated photosynthesis for large-scale storage of solar energy."

According to Nocera, his new system can work at ambient temperatures and pressures, without corrosion in a simple glass of water, even polluted water. "If you need pure water for energy storage, they’ll drink it," Nocera said. "Use puddle water instead." In fact, Nocera has been running his prototype on untreated water from the Charles River in Boston. And it’s cheap, not $12,000 per kilowatt like commercial electrolyzers that do the same thing. "That’s not going to help the energy situation for the U.S. or poor people of the world."

Using the electricity generated by a photovoltaic array five meters by six meters, Nocera claims he can split enough water in less than four hours "to store enough energy for the average American home" for a day, a little more than 30 kilowatt-hours. "We need to stop making big energy systems one a time to service lots of people. We need to do it the old American way of making one small one and then manufacturing that system to give it to the masses."

His example? The automobile. After all, in 1898, concerned civic leaders from around the world gathered because estimates predicted that London would be buried under three meters  of manure at then current rates of growth; New York City would have piles reaching to the third story of buildings. Within two decades, that problem was entirely gone. "They didn’t see the automobile industry coming," Nocera said. "Shift happens."





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  1. 1. cantrell 6:15 pm 03/3/2010

    Fascinating. Artificial Photosynthesis is no longer the thing of science fiction novels:

    http://www.livingdigitally.net/containment.html

    Link to this
  2. 2. cantrell 6:16 pm 03/3/2010

    Fascinating. Artificial Photosynthesis is no longer just the stuff of science fiction:

    http://www.livingdigitally.net/containment.html

    Link to this
  3. 3. dreamer-71 7:06 pm 03/3/2010

    Splitting water is trivial; we’ve known how to do it for well over a century. The tricky part is doing so safely enough for home usage, and doing so <i>feasibly</i>. This article made no mention of how much a kW would cost under this new system aside from that it would presumably be less than $12k/kW. It would be interesting to see how this compares with other energy possibilities.

    Link to this
  4. 4. dreamer-71 7:07 pm 03/3/2010

    Splitting water is trivial; we’ve known how to do it for well over a century. The tricky part is doing so safely enough for home usage, and doing so <i>feasibly</i>. This article made no mention of how much a kW would cost under this new system aside from that it would presumably be less than $12k/kW. It would be interesting to see how this compares with other energy possibilities.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Elastic Planet 7:14 pm 03/3/2010

    I had heard about the breakthrough in mechanized photosynthesis a little over a year ago. Glad to see someone’s trying to put it into production. Maybe it’s the same person? I can’t remember, but I vaguely recall M.I.T. being involved.

    Link to this
  6. 6. dreamer-71 7:15 pm 03/3/2010

    Sorry for the double-post; SciAm’s message board system is more advanced than smoke signals, but not by much….

    Link to this
  7. 7. thewaltonfirm 8:08 pm 03/3/2010

    I think the issue of Technology Review from Nov/Dec 2008 has what you are talking about, and is also about Daniel Nocera

    Link to this
  8. 8. jtdwyer 9:00 pm 03/3/2010

    dreamer-71 – Unfortunately, the article hides all the critical information in its many links.

    The "water for energy storage" link explains that Nocera has reportedly accomplished the trick Mr. Wizard showed me on TV 50 years ago, but has replaced the expensive platinum electrode with one made of cobalt & phosphate.

    I’d suggest Nocera not encourage the use of waste water, since whatever equipment would be used would suffer maintenance issues. Kind of makes me wonder about the guy, along with the jazzy ‘artificial photosynthesis’ tag for age old technology.

    If this process really works reliably and is reasonably cheap, I’d expect Nocera to be rich, already. He’s had months to collect venture capitalist investors…

    Link to this
  9. 9. InvaderAz 9:11 pm 03/3/2010

    Split water, you mean electrolysis? What is the big advance here? Sounds like all he has done is get funding for using his cheaper catalyst. Still have all the same problems of storing gases. How does he do that with out spending large amounts of energy pressurising it?

    In my mind, to copy nature and store sunlight is to use sunlight to make simple sugars and then later "burn" them without smoke like animals do. Nocera is miles away from copying nature.

    Link to this
  10. 10. JamesDavis 7:42 am 03/4/2010

    It is hard to believe that all these comments are trying to discourage an incredible advancement. Do all you people work for a utility or gas company.

    Yes, we’ve had the technology for decades, but no one knew how to develope it or use it until Nocera came along. I think his advancement is incredable and if it is kept out of the hands of the greedy utility companies, it will be very affordable. He explained why he is developing it to use puddle water…did you miss that part?

    I think the Obama administration should pump much more money into this project and get it on the market and into homes before the power shifts back to the republicans. If the power shifts back to them, all clean energy projects will be dead for another fifty to a hundred years.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Soccerdad 8:31 am 03/4/2010

    It’s hard to believe that someone would advocate pumping money into this project when there is no disclosure of any specifics or any cost estimates. One could go broke very quickly in an undisciplined spreading of capital like it was manure. Something, by the way, that Obama is pretty good at.

    Link to this
  12. 12. jtdwyer 9:47 am 03/4/2010

    JamesDavis – I’m not trying to discourage anything.

    If I was reading by now that prototype solar-cell/hydrolysis/fuel cell power generators were now available for $x I’d be very interested.

    Why the trick name? Why is federal government investment necessary? Why is there apparently no development underway? Did the introduction of desktop computers require federal investment and support?

    I have to be skeptical until something concrete is produced. There seems to be no inhibitor to immediate production.

    Link to this
  13. 13. tharriss 10:03 am 03/4/2010

    Hey jtdwyer, just a thought… the federal government did invest a LOT of money in early computer technology, without which the private PC market that later developed wouldn’t exist. It is a myth that the private sector does all the R&D totally on its own… much of the innovation initially comes from research at least partially funded by the government in some way.

    I do agree that a lot of the early science breakthroughs (or incremental breakthroughs like the one in this article) get a lot of hype then turn into nothing, or sit for years before someone figures out how to change them into something that makes sense for the market. But public (government) investment in research, even though a fair amount of it may come to nothing in and of itself, pays big dividends to all of us in the end.

    I much rather support scientists building a technical solution to nowhere, than a bunch of guys with shovels building a bridge to nowhere…. because some part of the technical solution may help with a later breakthrough, or the support of the scientific process and community in general can lead to that next big breakthrough… there are always plenty of hands for shovels, but people using their minds to develop a better future, that’s a precious commodity.

    Link to this
  14. 14. jtdwyer 10:34 am 03/4/2010

    tharriss – In the most general terms your statement is correct: private enterprise did not invent computers. However, I was referring specifically to the Personal Computer, which to my personal knowledge was developed almost if not entirely with private sector funding.

    In general, development of technologies that require enormous investments in research and development, and have an extremely high unit cost, such as dams and highway systems, for example, will not be developed by private investors. If it has public benefit is should be publicly funded.

    A technology that can offer quick development of products that can be sold at a relatively low unit cost should quickly attract private funding without going through congress for approval.

    Link to this
  15. 15. jtdwyer 10:45 am 03/4/2010

    tharriss – I just don’t really see any apparent requirement for additional research for this mature technology, only product development. Maybe there’s some issue we haven’t yet been informed of.

    Link to this
  16. 16. sofistek 2:57 am 03/5/2010

    I’d like to see the calculations for the claim that a 30 square metre solar array can store 30 kwh of electricity, in 4 hours. What was the efficiency of the panels? How much do they cost? What was the set up and under what conditions would that much energy be stored. Also, how much of that energy could be converted back to electricity, and at what cost?

    Link to this
  17. 17. carlosperdue 7:02 pm 03/5/2010

    "It is hard to believe that all these comments are trying to discourage an incredible advancement. Do all you people work for a utility or gas company."

    It is NOT hard to believe that a socialist who clearly thinks the government must fund all technological progress would resort to ad hominem and evasion, implying that anyone expressing skepticism or even asking pertinent questions must be working for an evil utility and therefore suppressing technology by refusing to express blind belief, declining to clap their hands like gullible dumbos about a technology that has been so vaguely described.

    I think it would be cool to crack hydrogen at home, but hey have legitimate questions. WHAT incredible advancement are you talking about? It hasn’t been described well enough to say. How are the gases stored? How are they then used to create electricity?

    Link to this
  18. 18. carlosperdue 7:02 pm 03/5/2010

    "It is hard to believe that all these comments are trying to discourage an incredible advancement. Do all you people work for a utility or gas company."

    It is NOT hard to believe that a socialist who clearly thinks the government must fund all technological progress would resort to ad hominem and evasion, implying that anyone expressing skepticism or even asking pertinent questions must be working for an evil utility and therefore suppressing technology by refusing to express blind belief, declining to clap their hands like gullible dumbos about a technology that has been so vaguely described.

    I think it would be cool to crack hydrogen at home, but hey have legitimate questions. WHAT incredible advancement are you talking about? It hasn’t been described well enough to say. How are the gases stored? How are they then used to create electricity?

    Link to this
  19. 19. rpaul 12:25 am 03/6/2010

    This is Science?? Shame on you, Scientific American, for publishing such a misleading article, without at least calling into question at least some of the assumptions. Photosynthesis, where? The same results could be achieved by plugging the ELECTROLYSIS machine into an outlet. Cheap? How cheap. Hydrogen storage? Not without expensive pumps and tanks. The only evidence of science was the development of a catalyst that may improve the efficiency of electrolysis. The rest was smoke and mirrors. Was it worth the $4m? Maybe, if, if, and if. Artificial photosynthesis? Only for those with artificial intelligence. Scientific American is becoming more of an oxymoron every day.

    Link to this
  20. 20. pingmaster 12:29 am 03/7/2010

    Electrolysis is not what Nocera is doing. Electrolysis to split water requires more electrical energy than is gained by combusting or otherwise using the hydrogen gas generated. What he has been working on for however long is making a molecular catalyst that splits water either on its own or that requires less voltage than straight electrolysis. If he succeeds in this it will truly be an amazing accomplishment.

    Link to this
  21. 21. jtdwyer 4:25 am 03/7/2010

    pingmaster – I read in SciAm two seemingly different characterizations of what Nocera is doing. One stated that he was (simply) replacing the platinum catalyst with cobalt, another indicated he was mixing cobalt & phosphate into the water, but explained no further. The first implies a cheaper form of electrolysis. The second is not sufficient to determine anything. You seem to indicate that the readers of this article have been misinformed – can you explain further or direct us to a better source of information? Thanks.

    Link to this
  22. 22. focalist 8:13 am 03/9/2010

    This is incredibly vague, that’s the real problem. We’re folks looking for a little information "meat".. and it looks more like a marketing blurb. Maybe even a Prospectus.

    SciAm.. we’re folks that can handle leaving out "splitting water".. but a bit more detail on what he’s actually DOING would be some of that Information…

    If it were my guess.. I’m thinking he is using electrolysis and storing the hydrogen, possibly coupling it with a fuel cell. As for the Hydrogen itself, he’s feeding the system DC solar, so running a DC compression system would make sense. Power in, stored as hydrogen, hydrogen catalyzed in fuel cell gives DC back out. If nothing else, at a casual glance, it makes for good marketing and possibly even a usable device..

    I want a block diagram design at least, and a cost/kw…

    Link to this
  23. 23. leifjohnston 3:51 pm 03/9/2010

    I stumbled on one of these links tied to ARPA-E and am astounded how many places are considering this a scientific breakthrough!

    OK, lets accept 100% efficiency on the electrolysis, what does it really solve? The way I heard the double speak in the video I assumed there was something interesting and new.

    Certainly we need to exploit solar energy, but virtually all the energy on earth tracks back to the sun, so our focus should be on the solar collection. A new battery would be great, but this isn’t that. It isn’t generation of energy either.

    We proposed a consortium to create a marketplace for the consumption of Algae for the ARPA-E Program, but were rejected. At least our thoughts were to something real and not a load of hyperbole!

    But SciAM! Please don’t let them get away with the double speak psuedo science. PLEASE!

    Leif Johnston
    Managing Partner
    Technology Catalyst

    Link to this
  24. 24. Jishnu 10:58 am 03/11/2010

    I think such projects should be given more focus, after all we can’t live on dino remains forever. as a student one day i dream on inventing a life changing technology one day.

    Link to this
  25. 25. profgroove 9:18 pm 03/11/2010

    First make H2 (nuclear electrolytic, PV solar electrolytic, or solar-thermal H2O decomposition via a S/I cycle) then convert to NH3 via a HaberBosch catalytic process,
    by adding N2 (using air separation techniques). Some new direct electrolysis; H2O + N2/air to NH3 methods are in development. NH3 (easily liquified and stored anhydrous ammonia) can be combusted, decomposed to N2 & H2 for a fuel-cell or fed reredirectly to a (also in development) NH3 to electricity fuel-cell.

    Link to this
  26. 26. co2dog 12:10 pm 03/12/2010

    This is NOT photosynthesis but plain old electrolysis. If this electrolysis were really better than what was done in the past … generating oxygen and hydrogen gases … then VC’s would have jumped on it and these guys would be rich.

    The title is highly misdirected. With articles like this, one wonders if SciAm has become a shill for the obama administration. The government produced video is so un-informing and propaganda.

    SciAm should be ashamed.

    Also SciAm should publish the truth behind the "Global Warming" HOAX to save whatever standing that it has as a "science" magazine.

    Link to this
  27. 27. kwhitefoot 7:05 am 03/14/2010

    Insolation average in Boston, Massachusetts averages 3.84 kW-hr per square metre per day (http://www.solar4power.com/solar-power-insolation-window.html) so at 10% efficiency 30 m2 of solar voltaics should produce 3.84 x 30 x 0.1 11.52 kW-hr per day. Las Vegas is 6.41 x 30 x 0.1 = 19.23 kW-hr per day. Where does the remaining energy come from?

    Also the energy density of hydrogen is <142MJ per kg (http://hypertextbook.com/facts/2005/MichelleFung.shtml), 30kW-hr is 30 x 3600 kJ = 108MJ so we need at least 142/108 = 1.3 kg of hydrogen to burn at 100% efficiency. The molecular weight of water is 18 of which hydrogen is 2 parts so we must split 1.3 x 18/2 = 11.7 kg of water. Hardly a glass full.

    As for investing in it, well why not just invest in solar voltaics and use them directly, why add an extra energy conversion and storage system to the chain when solar voltaics coupled by inverters to the grid are already known to work.

    Link to this
  28. 28. kwhitefoot 7:53 am 03/14/2010

    Oops, I should have said:
    Also the energy density of hydrogen is <142MJ per kg (http://hypertextbook.com/facts/2005/MichelleFung.shtml), 30kW-hr is 30 x 3600 kJ = 108MJ so we need at least 108/142 = 761g of hydrogen to burn at 100% efficiency. The molecular weight of water is 18 of which hydrogen is 2 parts so we must split 0.761 x 18/2 = 6.85 kg of water.

    Still hardly a glass full.

    Link to this
  29. 29. adesskeg77 10:58 am 03/15/2010

    We have been fed up with this sort of claims from time to time and for the last tw0 decades in my country (SRI LANKA)as well.Gasoline from polythene waste,vegetable waste,coconut oil and even energy to drive motor vehicle from plain water!Except for the last one ( a good HOAX) the other inventions has been verified and we had a good faith in the first one since at least it would work until our piles of garbage polythene domes finished,yet it ended without any further development, well may be it is not economical as with most of these new energy inventions.This is the way of the progress of our inventions, ultimate right process does not comes to us at once as a free gift from heaven and even a unrealistic, uneconomical idea might be a useful one in years to come after developments in other fields and Mr Nocera invention be such one. We must encourage with blessings those who try since it is our future.

    Link to this
  30. 30. jtdwyer 12:39 pm 03/16/2010

    adesskeg77 – A very excellent and enlightening perspective. Thank you very much.

    Link to this
  31. 31. hankroberts 10:53 pm 03/16/2010

    Technology we haven’t had for decades:

    Safe way for millions of individuals to store hydrogen and oxygen at home, and burn them, without blowing things up.

    That would be really good. Until then, though, turning the sunlight into carbohydrate remains a much safer storage technique.

    Gengineer a fast-growing tree to produce lots of coppice wood, and be tappable for drinking water, and spread wide enough to live under and stay dry, and grow layers renewable removable insulation (cork!) — and we’d have a real technological photosynthetic revolution.

    No fancy storage tanks, no hydrogen leaks, no oxygen leaks, no hydrogen-oxygen firebox problems — do you know how hot a hydrogen-oxygen fire is? Yeah, it produces nice clean drinking water hot enough to make coffee or tea or strip paint.

    But egad, what a crazy thing to build and put in every home.

    Link to this
  32. 32. 7427jeffrey 12:10 pm 03/18/2010

    I have thought for some time, and wrote to then candidate Obama, that we need a federal agency like NASA to assess, coordinate, research, test and implement a national strategy for alternative energy technologies inclusion in our energy production menu. With all of the money being spent by private industry for wind, sun and other emerging alternative energy technologies, and now discussion of this idea, it seems we are not making the best use of any of them. Private industry would never have gotten to the moon on its own.

    Link to this
  33. 33. Taxodium 12:41 pm 03/19/2010

    Storing hydrogen at high pressure is difficult and dangerous. It is much more efficient and safe to let nature do its work and use algae, rapeseed or other biological agents to convert water-with-sunlight into safely storable energy like oil, sugar or ethanol.

    Link to this
  34. 34. jmu13 7:08 pm 03/22/2010

    Me and my dad recently set up a magnet power generator our house. It was pretty easy and only took about 2 hours to set up. My dad said hes saving a lot now on the electricity bill for only 2 hours of work. the instructions to build one were pretty simple and easy to follow. We got them through here http://a2b60br4s0bz8pb6fb086-1d3o.hop.clickbank.net/?tid=2010 . I definitely recommend magnetizing your home, it’s good for the environment (using less electricity) and saves you a lot of money on the bills.

    Link to this
  35. 35. jmu13 7:08 pm 03/22/2010

    Me and my dad recently set up a magnet power generator our house. It was pretty easy and only took about 2 hours to set up. My dad said hes saving a lot now on the electricity bill for only 2 hours of work. the instructions to build one were pretty simple and easy to follow. We got them through here Me and my dad recently set up a magnet power generator our house. It was pretty easy and only took about 2 hours to set up. My dad said hes saving a lot now on the electricity bill for only 2 hours of work. the instructions to build one were pretty simple and easy to follow. We got them through here [URL="http://a2b60br4s0bz8pb6fb086-1d3o.hop.clickbank.net/?tid=2010"http://a2b60br4s0bz8pb6fb086-1d3o.hop.clickbank.net/?tid=2010/URL . I definitely recommend magnetizing your home, it’s good for the environment (using less electricity) and saves you a lot of money on the bills. . I definitely recommend magnetizing your home, it’s good for the environment (using less electricity) and saves you a lot of money on the bills.

    Link to this
  36. 36. FactsDontMatter 11:25 pm 03/22/2010

    Wow, WHAT a crock, jmu13! If you really are a kid, and you and your dad really did "magnetize" your home, then I hate to inform you that your dad has fallen for a scam, wasting his time and money. However, I suspect that you’re just pushing the scam on that web site, hoping that someone here will fall for it.

    Link to this
  37. 37. Josephe 8:02 pm 08/29/2010

    Amen…We no longer have a government by the people but one owned by those wealthy few. If the oil companies get this we will still be behind the proverbial 8 ball.

    Link to this
  38. 38. tichead 10:22 am 08/30/2010

    Just so much more Sciam sensationalism. Did David Biello even go to school? If he did then he should know that this isn’t photosynthesis and he just became a parrot for Dan Nocera’s propagadinsing for a federal program of specuous value.

    All photosynthetic reactions produce energy, but not all energy producing reactions are photosynthesis. Hydrolysis is not photosynthesis. If the title of this article read, "…Will Hydrolysis Power the World?", then most of us Sciam readers would have wondered why the question even needed to be asked.

    Dan Nocera may have made a valuable advance in alternative and sustainable energy production, but the value is lost in the hyperbole of this article. So were a lot of the valuable details of the process that we Sciam readers so much enjoy. More stuff, less fluff, please.

    Can we get an editor in here?! Anybody, an editor, please…

    Link to this
  39. 39. AlexYHP 11:51 pm 03/11/2011

    The great American inventor R Buckminster Fuller said that "You can’t make money and sense at the same time, they are mutually exclusive" … and of course commerce / corporations have been doing the opposite and wonder why it’s not working.

    Our future will evolve "by design", many many designs like this one ‘whose time has come’. There is a challenge for many people just being able to see that change is accelerating so fast, and faster every day.

    Once you can see that technology is ‘freeing’ human beings (we were not actually put on earth just to work in a JOB) then you see that there is (and has been for over forty years) so much wealth here on earth that we could ALL be living the lifestyle of a billionaire within as short a time as ten years. But, it is a part of our evolutionary experience, and if you can’t see the abundance yet then your only option is to ‘fight’ for what you can get, which always and will always only ever create more scarcity and misery.

    Bucky Fuller saw all of this back in 1970′s and around 1980 said that there were 4.7 billion "potential billionaires" living on earth and mostly unaware of their good fortune.

    Imagine us all working together … to create a future that allows everyone to enjoy this beautiful planet fully. Your Healthy Planet.com is one artifact just launched to help facilitate this future. http://bit.ly/YHPlanet

    It is just like planting seeds of possibility as nature has done for billions of years. Join us if you can.

    Link to this
  40. 40. Momus 2:14 pm 03/23/2011

    Amazing. Amazing BS -The article and the video.

    I have no idea if that company has a promising invention or what, since the article gives zero information, and the video is a promotional, used-car sales style.

    -"We give you 24 hr sun". Wow, great here is $4mil , you are so convincing… And the ending with the "young people".. How motivating… Ugh. Nobody in Scientific American is in charge of reviewing garbage like this before it’s spread?! Scientific America has some great articles, but clicking on the links to articles is now a crap shoot. Too much junk!! It makes the good ones hard to find…

    Link to this

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