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The Role of New Technologies in a Sustainable Energy Economy

10/25/2006 6:00 PM Museum
Daniel Nocera, The Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy and Professor of Chemistry; ; ; ; Angela Belcher, Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Biological Engineering

Description: No single new technology can deliver limitless and clean energy, but Daniel Nocera and Angela Belcher are optimistic that they can harness the physical and natural worlds to move toward this goal. Belcher looks to ancient ocean organisms for her inspiration. The biocomposite materials that make up abalone shells or diatoms, which evolved over millions of years, are durable and exquisitely designed at the nano level. Belcher poses an -interesting question: Why didn't the organism make other materials, like solar cells, batteries, or traditional fuel cells? ....We say, they haven't had the opportunity yet, let's give them the opportunity." Her goal is to engineer these organisms so that their DNA codes for the synthesis of an efficient battery or solar cell, for instance. -It seems crazy," admits Belcher, but she points to a photo of her son, to whom she's passed on the genetic information that's given rise to his flesh and bones. Why not take the same principles and direct a microorganism to construct itself into a useful machine, Belcher suggests. -With the right ingredients, it would assemble itself," she says. Using natural materials would ensure -environment-friendly processing" that produces little waste. Indeed, the yeasts used in beer could -brew semiconductors for solar cells as well,' says Belcher. -What will be the oil of the future, my Nirvana?" asks Daniel Nocera. The answer is deceptively simple: water plus light. Nocera is trying to emulate plants, which story the energy of sunlight: -Every time you eat a green leafy vegetable, you're literally chewing photons of the sun, releasing photons of the sun." Nocera -does artificial photosynthesis", which he believes -our future has to evolve to." The challenge lies in how to capture and convert the energy created by splitting water with sunlight. Nocera says -We don't know how to make photovoltaics cheaply," but we must learn quickly. Right now humans globally require 13 trillion watts (or terawatts) of power. By 2050, we'll need 28 terawatts. Nocera pokes holes in some hypothetical scenarios offered to achieve this objective. If you gave over every square inch of cropland on the face of the earth to biomass production, you'd only get 7 additional terawatts. Plus, -you couldn't eat anymore." You'd still need to add 8,000 nuclear power plants, by building a new plant every 1.6 days for the next 45 years; put wind turbines everywhere; and dam every available river, to approach the 28 terawatt goal. These technologies don't scale up realistically, says Nocera, so we must look to the sun, which in one hour puts out as much energy as humans use during an entire year.

About the Speaker(s): In 2006, Angela Belcher was named 2006 Research Leader of the Year and a member of the Scientific American 50," the magazine's annual list of individuals, teams, companies and other organizations whose accomplishments demonstrate outstanding technological leadership. Belcher was recognized for "the use of custom-evolved viruses to advance nanotechnology," according to the magazine.

Belcher won a MacArthur Fellowship Award in 2004 and has also received the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (2000), and the Du Pont Young Investigators Award (1999).

Prior to MIT, Belcher was an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Texas, Austin. She received her B.S. in 1991 from the University of California, Santa Barbara and her Ph.D. from the same institution in 1997. In 2005, Daniel Nocera was awarded the Italgas Prize, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Nocera has received the American Institute of Chemists Award, and was appointed a Presidential Young Investigator and an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow.

He serves on the Editorial Boards of Accounts of Chemical Research, Inorganic Chemistry, Journal of the American Chemical Society and Comments in Inorganic Chemistry. He was the inaugural Editor of Inorganic Chemistry Communications.

Nocera received his B.S. in 1970 from Rutgers University, and his Ph.D. from CalTech in 1984. He joined MIT in 1997.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

Category: Events | Updated over 2 years ago

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