While many scientists are figuring out how to scale up wind, geothermal or biomass systems, Nocera is focusing on “personalized” energy units that can be manufactured, distributed and installed on the cheap.
His main concern lies with the increasing energy demands of six billion people, primarily from developing nations, who will be marching onto the world stage by 2050 and likely doubling the planet’s energy consumption, from around 13 to 26 terawatts (that’s trillion watts).
Nocera’s science isn’t about making big or efficient systems.
For non-legacy populations,
Nocera’s metrics look at cost in terms of energy stored per weight of something, and so he plots a Boeing 777 plane, etching tools, and Big Macs on the same cost curve.
Priced out this way,
cars cost around $1 million. Pursuing this logic, Nocera wants to
build large quantities of small energy systems and get them into the
developing world before giant infrastructure-based energy takes
Nocera’s innovations include replicating in the lab the process of photosynthesis in plants, using sunlight to split water molecules and store energy.
A liter of water, energized by sunlight from a photovoltaic cell, can store 13 megajoules.
The 3.2 million liters in MIT’s pool could yield 43 terawatts - enough energy “to take care of all of you.” Nocera’s photosynthesis uses a cobalt-phosphate cocktail that mimics the mineral-based catalytic process in a plant, and “keeps fixing itself,” running endlessly on such humble fuels as Charles River water.
His process even yields pure drinking water from waste.
While Nocera acknowledges his critics, he views them as institution-bound naysayers: