How can we store the sun's energy and use it later when the sun isn't shining? That has been one of the biggest challenges facing the widespread implementation of solar power.
Now it appears that an answer may come from trying to duplicate what plants do.
A Masschusetts Institute of Technology professor has announced what he and his staff believe is a key breakthrough.
In a report from the MIT news service, Prof. Daniel Nocera said:
"This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years. Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."
Prof. Nocera is the senior author of a paper describing the discovery the July 31 issue of Science.
The new process mimics the photosynthesis performed by plants, using solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. These gases can later be recombined in a fuel cell. Then the fuel cell can power your home or charge your electric car -- any time you like.
If the discovery turns into a usable technology, we will be able to store the most abundant form of energy on the planet and use it when we want -- making home generation of electricity much more efficient.
It's thought the process could help us de-centralize the production of electricity and therefore reduce the need for costly and risky (nuclear energy) alternatives that rely on building huge electricity generators that can harm the environment.
Scientists will examine the details to see how the discovery stands up to scrutiny and how it can be applied. Policy-makers will look to see how such a new process might be used to address our urgent need to reduce carbon emissions.
But please excuse this non-scientist if I holler hooray right now. It is truly wonderful to hear of scientists working to solve a pressing global problem in such an environmentally-friendly way.
And indeed, science has done many wonderful things. But it has also been at the beck and call of big money far too often. You know the scenario: business and government call the tune by offering research dollars, and scientists dance. The result is that we often use our most brilliant minds to poison the earth or create new or more effective ways to kill people.
The University of California has been involved with nuclear weapons since the 1940s, and the distinguished public university system today continues to manage the labs that design and develop nuclear weapons.
Why do we use huge amounts of tax dollars, the prestige of a great university, the intellect and effort of some of our finest thinkers, and then create weapons of mass destruction? Do we really want our universities working to hone devices that kill civilians on a large scale and destroy cities?
In 2005, the Dalai Lama had this to say about the relationship of science and humanitarian values.
Purely from the scientific point of view, the creation of nuclear weapons is a truly amazing achievement. However, since this creation has the potential to inflict so much suffering through unimaginable death and destruction, we regard it as destructive. It is the ethical evaluation that must determine what is positive and what is negative [...]
We must find a way of bringing fundamental humanitarian and ethical considerations to bear upon the direction of scientific development, especially in the life sciences. By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry. Rather, I am speaking of what I call "secular ethics" that embrace the key ethical principles, such as compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power -- principles that transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers, and followers of this religion or that religion. I personally like to imagine all human activities, including science, as individual fingers of a palm. So long as each of these fingers is connected with the palm of basic human empathy and altruism, they will continue to serve the well-being of humanity.
Science is connected to the rest of us. Scientists can choose to work on projects that benefit humanity -- especially if we pressure our government to fund those kind of projects.
So today is a day for rejoicing. This week's discovery by Prof. Nocera and his colleagues could help us use the huge abundance of sun energy in a way that can give power to people everywhere. We don't need to drill off-shore for oil or build new nuclear plants, we just need to keep supporting and encouraging scientists like those in Prof. Nocera's lab at MIT.
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is an educational charity that wants to encourage new US nuclear weapons policy. The Foundation is gathering one million signatures in a public education campaign, US Leadership for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World -- An Appeal to the Next President of the United States. The text of the Appeal sets out seven prudent steps -- such as de-alerting nuclear weapons -- that would make the world safer. The names will be delivered to the White House on Inauguration Day January 20, 2009.
People can read the US Leadership Appeal and sign on at www.wagingpeace.org/appeal.
We also have an appeal to the University of California to get out of the nuclear weapons business. Please sign that also if you care about the issue. http://www.wagingpeace.org/menu/action/urgent-actions/appeal_to_regents/index.php Thank you.