How Artificial Leaves Can Solve the Global Energy Crisis

In 2011, Daniel Nocera conquered global media attention when he presented a cheap coated-silicon sheet which, when placed in a glass of tap water and exposed to sunlight, is able to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Both gases can be collected, stored as fuel in private households and later be fed to fuel cells to generate electricity. While the dream of artificial photosynthesis has been chased by generations of scientists, it was Nocera who included a bottom-up approach in his research, which aims at providing energy for the world’s poorest people. “If there is one thing that’s unique to the technology development I’ve done, it has been doing science with the super-poor in mind.” Under the impact of the Arab oil embargo and other oil crises of the 70s and 80s, Nocera envisioned his scientific career as humanitarian activity focused on the discovery of the “guarded secret of plants”, a concept which was introduced to the scientific debate in 1912 by Italian chemist Ciamician. In order to prepare the artificial leaf for global application, Nocera already managed to reduce production costs significantly by substituting the rare and expensive platinum used in earlier models with inexpensive and earth-abundant materials. As a next step, nanotechnology might help making the leaf more efficient and reducing production costs. At Falling Walls, Daniel Nocera speaks about the walls to break on the way to a global energy revolution.

Daniel G. Nocera

Havard University

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