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MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera has devised a novel way of storing solar power using inexpensive materials. He says its the first step to creating a hydrogen generating synthetic "plant", critics say his claims are overstated.   (Source: Christopher Harting )

Professor Nocera imagines a system where solar panels or articial leaves collect solar energy and turn it tinto electricity. From there his catalyst would use the electricity to split water, forming hydrogen fuel.  (Source: Bryan Christie )

Professor Nocera's novel system for hydrogen generation uses cobalt, an inexpensive catalyst previously dismissed due to its high solubility.  (Source: Bryan Christie )
Is Professor Nocera's solar brew a savior or a wishful thinking?

Solar power's efficiency is advancing at a steady rate, and with improvement such as concentrated cells and novel materials the question is not so much if solar can be cheaper than coal power someday, but rather when.  However, when this scenario does eventually arise, solar faces some remaining challenges, the most significant of which is the intermittent nature of the power source. 

In short, without something to store solar power efficiently, it’s infeasible as a primary electric power source.

Batteries and ultracapacitors are frequently discussed as possible means of solar power storage, but they are very expensive.  Other novel storage methods have also been explored, but they seem uncertain prospects at best.  Some scientists point out that there is already a system that takes solar power and stores it -- photosynthesis in plants.

When it comes to imitating nature's hydrogen producing system (remember, sugar is only the secondary product of photosynthesis, driven by the production of the primary product -- hydrogen ions -- from using sunlight's energy to split water), many scientists have tried.  However, the electrocatalysts needed to split water into hydrogen and oxygen are typically even more pricey than batteries.  However, one MIT professor has discovered a possible alternative using cheap materials that he says may help keep the dream of solar power (and solar storage) alive.

Daniel Nocera PhD, a professor of chemistry at MIT, devised a catalyst system using strips of cobalt, nickel, and phosphate, all relatively inexpensive chemical compounds.  By eschewing expensive catalysts like platinum, the cost of the system is kept low.  So why didn't others think of this efficient system?  Well, he says that it is commonly known that cobalt dissolves relatively easy in water, making it typically a poor electrode material, and typically earning it a quick dismissal.  To remedy this, Professor Nocera chose a somewhat creative approach, instead adding dissolved cobalt directly to the solvent and relying on a thin cobalt film which formed on the electrode.

The success of the result surprised even its creator.  He describes, "Here's the luck.  There was no reason for us to expect that just plain cobalt with phosphate, versus cobalt being tied up in one of our complexes, would work this well. I couldn't have predicted it. The stuff that was falling out of the compounds turned out to be what we needed."

Now he is looking to improve upon his lucky break.  He states, "Now we want to understand it.  I want to know why the hell cobalt in this thin film is so active. I may be able to improve it or use a different metal that's better."

However, he also wants to move towards a production system.  He states, confidently, "We were really interested in the basic science. Can we make a catalyst that works efficiently under the conditions of photosynthesis?  The answer now is yes, we can do that. Now we've really got to get to the technology of designing a cell. "

Some are skeptical about Professor Nocera's big claims.  They say that his system is cheap and promising in some respects, but that he is overstating its potential for commercial scale hydrogen production.  By an important metric, the peak efficiency current density (the higher this number, the faster the rate of hydrolysis), his best reported result of 10 milliamps per square centimeter is only a hundredth of the current commercial electrolyzer rate of 1000 milliamps per square centimeter.

Even one of his teachers is taking issue to Professor Nocera's alleged hyperbole; Thomas Meyer, who has been a mentor to Nocera, states, "The claim that this is the answer for artificial photosynthesis is crazy.  [This] could prove technologically important [as a] research finding, [but]  there's no guarantee that it can be scaled up or even made practical."

John Turner, a research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, adds, "At least what he's published so far would never work for a commercial electrolyzer, where the current density is 800 times to 2,000 times greater."

While some say he is wasting his time and should refocus on batteries, Professor Nocera continues his research and his big talk.  He's teaming up with Professor Michael Grätzel of the  École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland to make a full solar cell and catalyst system which produces hydrogen.  Professor Grätzel invented a unique dye that gives off electrons when exposed to sunlight.  Professor Nocera hopes to merge the two inventions to create an artificial, fuel-generating leaf, what he sees as the future of electric power generation.

One thing's for sure -- Professor Nocera's work and rhetoric will likely continue to draw rebukes from colleagues, but it’s hard to argue the temptation of emulating nature's most successful energy fixing design and storing power by a simple equation -- "sun + water = fuel".

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RE: Greatness
By DaveLessnau on 11/24/2008 8:11:00 PM , Rating: 3
Just for informational purposes:

Undergraduate Tuition and Living Expenses

Nine months' tuition for 2007–2008 is $34,750; a Student Activity Fee of $236 increases the total to $34,986. In addition, undergraduate room and board is approximately $10,400, with actual costs dependent on the student's housing and dining arrangements. Books and personal expenses (including clothes, laundry, and recreation, but excluding travel) are about $2,800.,

That's from:

I don't see any mention of resident vs non-resident rates. I also assume the numbers are a bit bigger for the 2008-2008 school year.

RE: Greatness
By jeff834 on 11/24/2008 10:09:01 PM , Rating: 4
As far as I know private schools don't differentiate between residents and non residents. As for how expensive the school is $45,000 a year is high, but not outrageous for an elite school. I personally went to Boston University right across the river from MIT (applied to MIT, didn't get in), which in my freshman year (99-00) was $34,000 or so grand total. I would bet now it's probably at or over $45k. They were pretty generous with scholarships and such (I got half tuition), just about everyone in the engineering department had some kind of grant/scholarship money.

RE: Greatness
By Solandri on 11/25/2008 3:03:11 AM , Rating: 2
MIT was ~$21k/yr when I was there as a grad student (94-96). So it's been going up a bit more than 5% a year.

Dunno about undergrad, but I know most of the grad students had some form of assistance, be it grants, scholarships, or an RA/TA. I want to say about 60%-70%, but that's just the number which pops into my head. I can't recall for sure - I think I read it in The Tech while I was there. I was a full-RA, which paid all of my tuition and gave me a small stipend of about $1300/mo. If you're qualified, they will bend over backwards to make sure you can attend. Some departments have more money too, so what major you decide to go for does affect your chances of getting financial aid.

A friend of mine went to BU my last year, which had the ignominy of being the most expensive school in the U.S. at the time - around $32k IIRC. It made me think MIT was a bargain in comparison.

RE: Greatness
By nstott on 11/25/2008 1:41:21 AM , Rating: 3
I don't see any mention of resident vs non-resident rates. I also assume the numbers are a bit bigger for the 2008-2008 school year.

MIT is a private institution, so there aren't separate rates.

RE: Greatness
By Chemical Chris on 11/25/2008 3:10:24 PM , Rating: 3
Whenever I complain about my tuition, I just think of the states, and feel better. Thank god I live in Canada, where even though tuition isnt free (it should be, in all countries, for reasons too detailed to get into here), it is heavily subsidized. I pay about ~$5500/yr (Im third year undergrad in Biochem).
Im currently considering doing a masters, as many of my profs and TA's have told me I should, and it gets much better then, as one can get NSERC support (tuition paid for, monthly stipend of $1-2k a month), which isnt bad.
Basically, undergrads are treated like crap, only once you prove your ability and become a grad student are you treated with respect, and the financial onus largely removed.
But nearly 40 grand a year for post-secondary! No wonder there is such a large gap (and growing) between the haves and have nots; by denying post secondary education, you are creating a society of rich and poor, with no middle class. And those that do manage to work up to a College degree, spend the rest of their life paying it back, meaning only their children will have half a chance at 'the american dream'. Sickening.
In the old days, the people were kept in line by severe means; threats, enforced poverty and total lack of education. Now, they just raise the price so only the 'social elite' can rise above, everyone else is kept in the low class as the price of getting out is just too high.
It just makes me so mad.



RE: Greatness
By masher2 on 11/25/2008 4:13:31 PM , Rating: 1
> "by denying post secondary education, you are creating a society of rich and poor"

No one is "denied" a post-secondary education -- they're simply being denied one at MIT. Anyone who gets accepted to a public university can afford to go, between all the various scholarships, grants, and loans offered.

Even for private universities like MIT, a substantial number of their students are attending either free or close to it. The bar is much higher, obviously -- but if you score well enough to make MIT "want" you, your tuition will be the last of your worries.

An entirely free education for any and all seems to have been a very poor policy. The largest problem in any public high school in America is simply keeping students to hang around long enough to graduate. People respect what they have to work for. I suspect that, were we to make college literally 'free', it would treated with the same lack of respect.

RE: Greatness
By jeff834 on 11/25/2008 9:57:23 PM , Rating: 1
Plenty of affordable places to go in the US definitely. I wasn't able to get into MIT, and I had scores and grades higher than a girl in my graduating class who did, but I was offered free tuition and room and board at both Rutgers University and The College of New Jersey. I just didn't want to go to either of those schools. There isn't really any financial reason people can't get a college education if they want it enough.

RE: Greatness
By nstott on 11/25/2008 7:22:05 PM , Rating: 2
MIT paid my tuition and gave me a monthly stipend for living expenses in grad school, but it wasn't for free. I worked my ass off to get into there. I come from a (lower) middle-class family and, therefore, didn't buy my way in. My in-state tuition for undergrad was around $2,000 a year (starting in 1991) at the University of Arizona, but I had a scholarship that paid it in addition to a scholarship for living expenses and Pell Grants. So, please, you can keep your Canadian education. Although, if you want free education and even free reeducation, move to North Korea where you will learn the real meaning of being "kept in line by severe means; threats, enforced poverty..."


RE: Greatness
By Belegost on 11/25/2008 8:06:42 PM , Rating: 2
Wait, what?

As pointed out, MIT is a private school, they are free to charge whatever they would like. That in no way precludes the existence of publicly funded universities - and, in fact, there are many in the US.

I did my undergraduate work in EE at UCSD, a highly regarded school for engineering internationally. Currently I believe in-state undergraduate fees amount to about 7,500/year plus an additional 7k for housing. The fees are also the same for attending UC Berkeley, which is a school generally considered to have the same high reputation as MIT in science and engineering.

"Basically, undergrads are treated like crap, only once you prove your ability and become a grad student are you treated with respect, and the financial onus largely removed."

Yes. Exactly. Part of the point of the undergraduate program is to be a test of the student's will to succeed. This is why large percentages of starting undergrads never finish, they lack the motivation and discipline needed. It only makes sense to reward someone AFTER they have proven worthy of the reward.

"tuition isnt free (it should be, in all countries, for reasons too detailed to get into here)"

Oh boy, I'm giggling like a school girl just thinking about that one. I'm sorry, I've seen way too many students who have free rides to agree to that. When something is given to you, it becomes commonplace, something to be assumed rather than earned. This breeds laziness and apathy.

Going through the undergrad program I saw a lot of my peers, who had parents paying the bills, goof off and waste their time, ultimately failing out of the program, or barely managing to graduate.

Meanwhile the people who paid their own way (like myself) tended to be far more serious about what they were doing. Perhaps it was the reminder that each lecture I skipped was $100 of my money gone, never to return. And had I failed a class, the cost would have been thousands of dollars. That is a definite motivating agent.

"by denying post secondary education, you are creating a society of rich and poor, with no middle class."

<sarcasm> I'm glad my dad is a highly important car painter; I can't imagine being denied my college degree.</sarcasm>

This is where your ignorance of the US university systems leads you to make asinine comments. There is no real barrier to a university degree in the US. There are community college systems in most places that allow students with poor prior academic performance to improve and transfer to a university. There are a variety of financial aid programs funded by the government that pay for many students. Most public universities are rather inexpensive. (My sister attends a Cal State university, her yearly fees are around $3000.)

" And those that do manage to work up to a College degree, spend the rest of their life paying it back"

I have about 25k in student loans to pay back for my undergraduate work. Since I was quite successful as an undergrad, my current graduate work is being entirely funded on fellowship, which further pays me $25k/year stipend. I'm hardly going to spend a lifetime paying back my school costs.

What the US system does do: separate people based on motivation - a separation between "do" and "do nots" so to speak. If you have the will and tenacity to struggle through the hard parts, you will be rewarded, and because of this, those that get through will earn something valuable - when I get that PhD certificate I will have proof of my ability to perform at a level above the wide majority of people. (To be honest, these days a BA/BS degree is so easy to get in the US that it's become about as valuable as a high school diploma - just something you are expected to have.)

RE: Greatness
By luhar on 12/15/2008 1:23:43 PM , Rating: 2
Just to add some more info to the tuition discussion. MIT will waive tuition (still require some work-study I believe) for all students who's families earn less than $75k a year.

I was there from 90-94 and most people I knew had some sort of aid. I believe the numbers have increased now. More and more of their costs are being covered by endowments. However, I don't know what the financial situation is given the market these days.


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