Next energy technologies may mimic nature

Nov 02, 2006

New technologies will play a major role in providing the world's growing population with the energy it will need in the coming decades--that was one of the messages of the MIT Museum's second of three "Soap Box" events devoted to energy.

Daniel Nocera, W.M. Keck Professor of Energy and professor of chemistry, and Angela M. Belcher, professor of biological engineering and materials science and engineering, spoke Oct. 25 about "The Role of New Technologies in a Sustainable Energy Economy."

Before the event, Belcher, who applies natural processes to the creation of new materials, handed out delicate abalone shells lined with iridescent mother of pearl. "Around 500 million years ago, organisms based in changing ocean concentrations starting making hard materials, because all of the sudden, they had the opportunity," she said. "Male and female abalone make millions and millions of baby abalone and build beautiful materials. They don't use any toxic materials and they don't add toxic materials back to their environment.

"Why didn't organisms make solar cells and batteries? They just haven't had the opportunity yet," Belcher said. Belcher engineers bacteria and viruses with the genetic programming to build solar cells and batteries. Given a certain genetic code and the right ingredients, the organisms self-assemble into tiny, nanoscale working devices and structures such as semiconductors. When the process is complete, there is no longer any living entity in the component, although it does contain organic parts.

Human beings are themselves "examples of self-assembling, self-correcting systems," she said, so it's not so far-fetched to think of such systems being put to use. Using the same materials (such as yeast) that produce beer, Belcher aims to create environmentally friendly sources for electronic devices.

Nocera talked about the necessity of finding alternative energy sources.

"What will be the oil of the future?" Nocera asked. "Water plus light."

Mimicking photosynthesis, Nocera proposes to store the high-energy bonds of light for later use. That's what photosynthesis is all about: When we eat plants, we release energy originally gathered from sunlight. "You're getting powered by sunlight. That's where our future has to evolve to," he said.

Photosynthesis splits the hydrogen and oxygen bonds in water and stores the energy as a solid. But currently available photovoltaics, or solar cells, are too expensive, "so science has to deliver new materials," Nocera said. "We would take these materials and store the sunlight in batteries."

A human being, considered as energy over time, uses around the same amount of energy as a 100-watt light bulb. In 2050, Nocera said, an estimated global population of nine billion will consume 28 trillion watts per day. Meeting that demand would require growing energy-dedicated crops everywhere on the face of the earth, a new nuclear plant being built every 1.6 days for the next 45 years, or windmills covering the entire surface of the planet.

"It's got to be the sun," Nocera said, because the sun pours more energy onto the Earth's surface in an hour than the entire planet uses in a year.

Audience questions ranged from the potential dangers of self-replicating organisms (imagine a science-fiction scenario of being overrun by virus batteries) to whether Nocera's formula of future energy needs took conservation into account.

Belcher said that the organisms in her laboratory self-assemble but do not self-replicate, so there is no danger of them proliferating out of control.

Nocera said the 28 trillion watt (terawatt) figure already assumes "unprecedented conservation" along the lines of the current standard of energy consumption of people in equatorial Guinea, not the current standard for the industrialized world.

"The question is: How much is the human global population really worried about this?" Nocera said. "The real discoveries will come from basic science in academia and the next steps from industry. Funding sources tend to be short-sighted, and this approach will not help us come up with a revolutionary technology to impact energy in the next 50 to 100 years.

"We had better start taking energy as personally as health care. We need to engage everyone," Nocera said.

Source: MIT

Explore further: Going nuts? Turkey looks to pistachios to heat new eco-city

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Secrets of the first practical artificial leaf

May 09, 2012

A detailed description of development of the first practical artificial leaf — a milestone in the drive for sustainable energy that mimics the process, photosynthesis, that green plants use to convert ...

Highly efficient oxygen catalyst found

Oct 28, 2011

A team of researchers at MIT has found one of the most effective catalysts ever discovered for splitting oxygen atoms from water molecules — a key reaction for advanced energy-storage systems, including ...

Recommended for you

Obama launches measures to support solar energy in US

Apr 17, 2014

The White House Thursday announced a series of measures aimed at increasing solar energy production in the United States, particularly by encouraging the installation of solar panels in public spaces.

Tailored approach key to cookstove uptake

Apr 17, 2014

Worldwide, programs aiming to give safe, efficient cooking stoves to people in developing countries haven't had complete success—and local research has looked into why.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...

A homemade solar lamp for developing countries

(Phys.org) —The solar lamp developed by the start-up LEDsafari is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...