Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Solar Breakthrough at MIT? A Lesson for Politicians

energyOn July 31, researchers at MIT announced a “revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source. Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun.”

Funded in part by a $10 million grant from the Chesonis Family Foundation, the work was described by MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT in a paper published in the July 31 issue of Science.


YouTube -  MIT Solar Breakthrough

One of the big problems facing efficient solar energy generation is storage; surplus energy generated during daylight must be stored for use at night. Utilizing the electricity from solar cells, Nocera’s apparatus uses electrolysis to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. This is not a new process. His team’s breakthrough is in the catalyst that makes splitting water molecules less costly, safer, and more efficient. Using a low-cost cobalt/phosphate catalyst, the process operates at neutral pH and at room temperature and uses much less energy.

Nocera ProcessOnce stored, the gases can be recombined into water in a fuel cell, thus generating electricity.

There is much additional R&D required before this discovery can be made commercial (one of Nocera’s electrodes is platinum, a very expensive metal; can it be replaced with something less costly?), but it is precisely this kind of investigation that should be the focus of our nation’s energy policy.

offshore drillingMcCain’s off-shore drilling nonsense is too little, too late, environmentally irresponsible, encourages continued reliance on fossil fuels, and does nothing to create a long-term solution. Obama’s plan to help citizens through the winter with a $1000 rebate funded in part by an excess-profits tax on oil companies is even worse. It is a one-year band-aid that will stifle innovation and increase our already unmanageable deficit.

Energy is a long-term problem. Short-term whining and short-term solutions just won’t work.

Al Gore has the right idea. CreateGore a “Space Program” for energy. Use tax incentives and governmental grants to stimulate the brightest minds (and the cleverest investors) to put their efforts and funding into research. Break Wall Street’s myopic focus on quarterly earning. Come up with corporate accounting and taxation policies that reward long-term thinking rather than short-term profits.

Technological advances coupled with conservation is the only long-term solution to the world’s energy problem.

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