October 30, 2008


Daniel Nocera—a guest at Mountainfilm’s 29th annual festival in 2007—is the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy and Professor of Chemistry at MIT. His group at MIT focuses on the basic mechanisms of energy conversion in biology and chemistry. Earlier this year, Nocera helped develop a potentially revolutionary catalyst that can use solar power to generate hydrogen from water. His discovery may be the long-elusive answer to efficient solar power and the leading breakthrough scientific discovery of the century.

Here is the latest article about Dr. Nocera, and a list of related articles.

Following are excerpts of an interview he held with executive director Peter Kenworthy during the 2007 festival.

PK: In layman’s terms, what is your energy conversion work all about?

DN: It’s pretty simple. If you take water and sunlight, you can basically do everything you do with oil. My group is in the business of catching the light and then converting it into a different energy form.  We make things called catalysts that capture the light acting on the water and then we try to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

PK: Isn’t that effectively photosynthesis?

DN: Yes, it’s exactly photosynthesis. As a matter of fact, the group is expert in how photosynthesis works. Most people don’t realize, leaves are buzzing with electricity. It’s wireless but they’re actually making current and then they make hydrogen and they make oxygen. We try to emulate the leaf and if we could do that we could power the earth.

PK: If photo-generation becomes practical science, what are the implications?

DN: The world would change as you know it. You’ll be pulling cars up to stations but you won’t be using gasoline – you’ll be using hydrogen. In terms of geopolitics, the world’s going to become safer: people will be generating their own energy – they won’t be relying on this one precious source from this place in the earth that causes a lot of geopolitical instability. If you could just use water and sunlight to make energy, a little town in Bangladesh could be as powerful as New York City.

PK: So what do people need to do to win the global energy challenge?

DN: First, they need to become activists. It’s what Mountainfilm is all about and it’s been a real inspiration to be here and see so many people committed to what I would call the right thing. I work with a lot of people in Washington – they all get the energy problem, whether it’s the environment, energy security or the economy. Everybody gets it but they need to be empowered. As individuals, we can all start empowering their constituencies so that they can have the discourse with their constituencies and won’t be voted out of office when they have it.

PK: Are there people in the scientific community who think you’re crazy?

DN: There aren’t many scientists who think I’m crazy. What bothers me about my field is that there are not enough of them who are heroic enough. The ascent of that peak that you thought you couldn’t get up – enough of them aren’t heroic to take that ascent. If you’re making that ascent that no one’s ever gone up, you might not get funded. At some level, you just have to say “Screw it! I’m going to make that ascent and what happens, happens.” So, there just needs to be a more heroic bunch doing it.

PK: How do you see your role in a festival setting like this one?

DN: These complicated energy things that you hear are complicated for a reason: there’s a lot of money to be made. It’s hard to get an honest broker. I feel I need to be the honest broker for people who care, so they can then take the knowledge I give them and do something with it. All I really care about is the planet, and mostly the people on the planet. You should always remember with CO2 and global warming, the earth is going to be absolutely fine. If that’s your concern, don’t worry – she will adapt. You won’t be living on it very well, so I’m more worried about you living on it, not the planet. So to be able to give people that perspective, artists and people in the media, journalists, so they can go out and spread the message in an educated way, put the filter on and know when they are getting the political or financial message versus the real core science message, it’s really important for me to connect with them. Scientists just provide proof. I need to give the truth so people can use that proof in their own course in life.