"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, March 28, 2011

Deus ex Machina

Science Magazine has the story of a potentially huge technological win, an "artificial leaf" made of cheap materials via MIT that uses ambient sunlight to catalyze the production of hydrogen and oxygen from water. If this works out, the "hydrogen economy" will suddenly be back on the table.

It won't solve all of our problems by any means, but if it's cheap enough it would pretty quickly resolve some of the biggest ones.

There are some other solutions out there that (as far as I know) remain in the plausible category. While it's crazy to depend on the technofix to our energy problems, it's equally crazy not to root for it.


JohnMashey said...

Yes, Nate Lewis is doing similar work at Caltech and such ideas are definitely worthy, as they go straight from sunlight to H2 and O2 without going through electricity, and the avoid using rare earths, a necessity if one is ever to scale big.

John said...

It is NOT "cheap" to "save" the expenditure of our means of exchange if we poison, radiate and blow ourselves away in so doing.

John Puma

David B. Benson said...

This so-called artifical leaf only laster 45 hours.

More interesting is GM E. Coli which express n-butanol in sufficently large quantities that this concept now goes to industry to determine if it scales up.

Ugo Bardi said...

Michael, on this point I am a bit skeptical - more than a nit. You may be interested in my post on "Cassandra's legacy" at:



Alexander Ac said...

Oh yeah, I wanted to point to Ugo's article.

But isn't it that kind of "techno-optimism" (a.k.a. business-as-usual forever), that got us into our environmental mess?

What do I miss?

Ugo Bardi said...

Oh, well, on this point look at the title of my blog: "Cassandra's legacy". After so many years, we maintain the same attitude!

GRLCowan said...

Do the hydrogen and the oxygen come off mixed?

Florifulgurator said...

Grotesque. If not tragic. Homo S "Sapiens" at his best.

The artificial leaf shows particular promise as an inexpensive source of electricity for homes of the poor in developing countries. Our goal is to make each home its own power station,” he said. “One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology.

Most villages in India and Africa are already using the cheapest and most efficient technology available. No need to purchase anything. It's generally carbon neutral and can even be turned carbon negative (biochar agriculture). It's called photosynthesis. Doesn't even need genetic engineering to work.

Michael Tobis said...


You are suggesting that the ambitions of the people of Africa to move beyond a pretechnological society are grotesque?

How many people do you think the world can support that way?

Ugo Bardi said...

What Florifulgurator is saying is that it is grotesque that someone is proposing to supply equipment that costs in the range of tens of thousands of dollars (that's the cost of a fuel cell able to power a home) to people who have much more basic needs and can't even dream of being able to afford such things. What did Marie Antoinette say on this point? something like "Let them eat cake...."

(OK, I know, she never said that. It was propaganda against her. Just like what is happening now to climate scientists!)

Florifulgurator said...

Ugo answered for me. Plus, methinks the world can sustainably support more people with "low tech" than with any currently known tech dreams. (And more so if you factor in the necessity of carbon negativity, c21st.) But I'm aware that's as theoretical as any other scenario...

Michael Tobis said...

Suppose we cost it out at $10K; a mortgage would be like, $40 a month; split over several households it seems entirely plausible to me.

But I wasn;t thinking that this would be distributed.

As for the 45 hours, that was a lower bound. Presumably the idea is that this can be stretched a lot further.

I do take the comment about making too much of press releases, yes. I am not quitting my day job to sell fuel cells just yet. But the thing is, we WANT things like this.

Indeed, we should be quite skeptical - people are eager for funding, and some of them have nothing sensible to back it up. On the other hand, the MIT imprimatur is still worth something.

So it is one thing to say we shouldn't bet the farm on getting it. I very much agree. It's quite another not to support and encourage their development, or to snipe at them based on very limited information.

Alexander Ac said...

So that is - we should finance nuclear fusion but should live from wood biomass in the mean-time...

David B. Benson said...

Alexander Ac --- Unfortunately there is simply not enough potential net primary production to supply the existing demand for electricity via biomass.

MT --- I'm not exactly sniping, but a lab experimental lithium carbonate electrolysis cell made some news awhile ago and nothing further has been heard of it. The CalTech cesium based electrolysis cell was the just prior nifty idea.

I'll be less dubious when any of these show enough promise to attempt industrial scale-up.

adelady said...

otoh, starting simple can save some biomass (trees), provide some power, replenish some soil carbon (as well as some fertility), maintain some potable water.


David B. Benson said...

Here are two more lab exercises which might eventually have a positive impact.

Advance Toward Making Biodegradable Plastics from Waste Chicken Feathers
except probably not biodegradable, for which see Plastic That Degrades In Seawater Could Be Boon For Cruise Industry.