Energy, Emulating Leaves and an Emmy Nomination

  Professor Daniel Nocera thinks that if the world behaved more like scientists, there’d be less war – everyone would see themselves as the part of the world, rather than individual countries. Nocera’s long and illustrious career has seen him work with many promising young scientists who now work in laboratories around the world creating a “global army” of alumni. One member of this army is Justin Hodgkiss, now a scientist at the MacDiarmid Institute, who invited Professor Nocera to speak at the AMN6 conference in Auckland. A professor at HarvardUniversity, Nocera’s research focuses on energy, specifically, using plants as the inspiration for building new energy generation systems. He has built a system that uses sunlight to make energy, in the form of hydrogen, inspired by the photosynthesis reaction of leaves. Sunlight is captured by silicon discs and creates a wireless current that spreads to two catalysts coating the silicon. One catalyst splits water into oxygen; the other uses the released protons to form hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be collected for use as a fuel source. Nocera has always been interested in energy, focusing on the subject whilst others were changing their focus to fit with society’s, and the funding system’s, view on what science should be delivering. Originally attracted into energy research by the USenergy crisis of the 1970s, he knew that a growing population would always need energy and that the decreasing availability of oil would become a critical problem.  While he sees the energy debate as primarily about the environment and climate change, he recognised that it would not become important to society until energy security and cost added immediacy to providing an alternative energy source. A solution his 40 year science career has been focused towards and can now provide. The next step is to address the two main issues involved in commercialisation of his research – that silicon is an expensive commodity and therefore of little use in a large-scale energy solution, and that hydrogen fuel use would require the instigation of a new energy infrastructure. Firstly, the group are looking at developing an alternative material to capture light – a dyed plastic not unlike photographic film. The idea is that a wave of energy would be transferred to a catalyst coating situated around the outer edges of a disc. The resulting reduction in the amount of catalyst required, combined with the loss of silicon from the system, would dramatically decrease the cost. Nocera has a strong belief that using existing infrastructure helps society accept new technologies,hence the second stream of research in his group – working with Matt Kanan’s research team at Stanford University to genetically modify an organism that can convert the hydrogen produced by his ‘artificial leaf’, with the addition of carbon dioxide, into a liquid fuel that could directly replace existing fuel sources. An alternative is to commercialise the research in areas where there is no existing infrastructure – the basis of an agreement with the Tata Group in India. Ratan Tata – the patriarch of the Tata family and the immediate ex-Chairman of the family conglomerate, the Tata Group  – is known for his efforts in industrialising developing countries, and Nocera hopes his work, through his own company Sun Catalytix and its association with Tata, will provide channels to deliver this new source of energy to the world. Public outreach is also a strong feature in Nocera’s life. He was nominated for an Emmy in 2006 for his PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) show ScienceNow. He also starred in “The Artificial Leaf “, the runner-up in a short documentary competition, which screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. He feels that outreach is vital to the scientific process and driving change – without scientists explaining the options available to them, people cannot be expected to understand those options and how they can change the world they live in. He describes himself as a reaction chemist, making, breaking and rearranging bonds, and chemistry as one of the cornerstones of nanoscience. He views nanotechnology as both a scientific discipline – with the nanoscale presenting different physical phemonena than that at the macro scale – and also a tool – allowing us to achieve new answers to the world’s problems. Nocera sees the MacDiarmid Institute as the perfect fit for New Zealand’s nanotechnology sciences. He views the independence the Institute has, by virtue of not being affiliated to any specific institution, as invaluable, and that this provide a unique environment to study basic science with a focus on future technologies. He admits that the system in the USA, where federally-funded institutions work at the behest of the government, is unlikely to produce a similar culture of discovery. Combined with the MacDiarmid’s ability to pull together scientists from all fields of nanoscience, this has led to his regular visits to the Institute and his involvement with the AMN6 conference.

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