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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

The Magic Artificial Leaf

Author: Reilly Capps/Friday, May 24, 2013/Categories: sustainability

By Reilly Capps 

Nature is magic. From dirt, water and sunlight spring flowers. 

As noted in my last post, scientists are trying to mimic nature. In several cases, photosynthesis. It's how life has kept itself going. Virtually the only way. 

"When you're eating food, you're chewing the photons from the sun," Daniel Nocera said. "That's what's worked for 2.5 billion years." 

Nocera, one of the most exciting scientists in the world, is working on doing nothing less than building an artificial leaf. When he explains the artificial leaf to you, there's no other possible reaction than what I blurted out to him: 

"It's like magic!" 

"It is like magic," he agreed. 

His artificial leaf is a self-repairing solar power station. Through a chemical reaction between water certain kinds of metal, you can create endless energy. Like all advanced technology, it's indistinguishable from magic. Science is magic. 

Here's an LA Times story on it. Here's the MIT Technology Review on it. Here's a quick video that expresses the magic: 


The Artificial Leaf | Jared P. Scott & Kelly Nyks from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

A Harvard professor, he's working with some of the most cutting edge technology in the world to build solar cells that he says are clean, cheap and small, so it might surprise you to hear him say that he is not a progressive. 

"I'm the conservative in the energy argument," Nocera told an audience in Telluride today. "I want to do what's worked for 2.5 billion years, and there are all these liberals like Exxon-Mobil that want to do a 150 year experiment." 

The 150 year experiment is burning fossil fuels. It's had mixed results: great for the economy, but climate change is an enormous threat. 

Nocera is intent on bringing us back to sunlight as the source of electricity.

His vision is so large that he wants to change the entire epoch we're in. We've been living in a geological period called the Holocene. Some have suggested that we ought to call our era the Anthropocene -- the era of man. But Nocera wants us to shift toward the Sustainocene. His system could help us get there. 

"Price is the bugaboo," he told me. He estimated that it will cost about $35,000 to outfit an average house with his energy system. That's not a tremendous amount of money to have endless clean energy, but more than most would be willing to pay.

I believe it could be a status symbol, like driving a Prius or a Tesla. That's something economists don't figure in: people want to be cool. People want to be on the cutting edge. It's hard to see anything cooler or more cutting edge than an artificial leaf. 

"It's gonna happen," Nocera told me. "It's the future. It's coming. It's only a question of how badly do you want it." 

"From a scientific point of view, I already know it works," he told me. "It works and it's perfect. What doesn't work is all the other stuff, the political stuff. That I can't control." 

Magic is hard to stop, though. Whether in nature of technology, the magic is real.

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