The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower….

Technology Review covers the breakthrough of MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, who has figured out how to make like a leaf… and turn sunlight into fuel:

Carried out with the help of a catalyst he developed, the reaction is the first and most difficult step in splitting water to make hydrogen gas. And efficiently generating hydrogen from water, Nocera believes, will help surmount one of the main obstacles preventing solar power from becoming a dominant source of electricity: there’s no cost-effective way to store the energy collected by solar panels so that it can be used at night or during cloudy days.

Solar power has a unique potential to generate vast amounts of clean energy that doesn’t contribute to global warming. But without a cheap means to store this energy, solar power can’t replace fossil fuels on a large scale. In Nocera’s scenario, sunlight would split water to produce versatile, easy-to-store hydrogen fuel that could later be burned in an internal-combustion generator or recombined with oxygen in a fuel cell. Even more ambitious, the reaction could be used to split seawater; in that case, running the hydrogen through a fuel cell would yield fresh water as well as electricity.

Storing energy from the sun by mimicking photosynthesis is something scientists have been trying to do since the early 1970s.

Nocera’s catalyst also has the interesting side effect of, as far as he can tell, desalinating sea water. Which might have interesting implications for irrigation and water supplies around the world.

His work, by the way, is just the tip of the iceberg as far as MIT’s new discoveries with catalysts.