Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Chemist Tries To Solve World's Energy Problems, Film At 11

Okay, true except for the film part. Daniel Nocera is a busy man:
Daniel Nocera arrives at his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by 7 a.m., goes home 13 hours later -- where he often reads papers or e-mails students much of the night -- and returns to his labs on weekends. Vacations? None, really, unless you count chemistry conferences.

After all, trying to save the world is hard work.

If you ever wonder about how the world will produce enough energy to supply 9 billion people by mid-century -- and whether that can be done without pumping off-the-charts amounts of carbon dioxide into the air -- meet one of the minds trying to produce an answer.

Nocera, 48, is trying to achieve an old, elusive dream: using the bountiful energy in sunlight to split water into its basic components, hydrogen and oxygen.


"This is nirvana in energy. This will make the problem go away," Nocera says one morning in his MIT office, where the Grateful Dead devotee has a "Mean People Suck" sticker on his window. "If it doesn't, we will cease to exist as humanity."

Lots of people have explored this challenge, but Nocera had a big breakthrough when he used light to coax multiple hydrogen atoms out of liquid. The key was figuring out the right chemical catalyst.

Nocera's 2001 paper on the process in the journal Science, written with graduate student Alan Heyduk, turned heads. Venture capitalists rang his phone off the hook offering to fund him in an alternative-energy company.

The achievement, and its revolutionary prospects, won Nocera this year's Italgas Prize, a $100,000 award given annually by an Italian utility to a top energy researcher.

"Dan is even-money (odds) to solve this problem," says Harry Gray, a renowned California Institute of Technology chemist who was Nocera's graduate adviser.