Solar power will dominate energy production by 2050 if Daniel Nocera has anything to do with it.

That was the message Nocera, professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gave following his acceptance of the Harrison Howe Award, which recognizes “outstanding contributions to research in chemistry defined in its broadest sense,” according to the Rochester Section of the American Chemical Society, which presents the honor annually. Forty percent of those who receive the award have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Nocera, the fifth speaker in the Sustainable Energy Lecture Series, accepted the award in an over-crowded Sloan Auditorium in the Robert B. Goergen Biomedical Engineering and Optics Building last Tuesday.

“This event was not made possible by a grant from the Mobil Corporation,” Chair of the Rochester Section of the ACS and Assistant Professor Chemistry at Nazareth College Richard Hartmann said to laughs.

Neither oil companies nor the government were shown much mercy throughout the evening as Nocera began his talk following his acceptance of the award from Hartmann and UR Associate Professor of Chemistry Patrick Holland.

“We’re going to live a totally self-contained energy life in our home – that’s the future,” Nocera said.

Nocera began his speech by remarking on the current state of energy use.

“It’s such an important issue that all the bickering of Washington – we’ve left that behind.”

As he began focusing on current energy use, he preemptively stated that he came with no agenda.

“I’m just here to tell the truth, and that’s what scientists should do.”

Nocera explained current energy trends, demonstrating that, in general, energy use is scaling alongside gross domestic product. The United States, which ranks 13th worldwide in energy use, has managed to level off its usage, a seemingly impressive statistic according to Nocera.

That is, until the figures are adjusted for outsourcing. Nocera elucidated on the statistics, showing how energy use has come to a virtual standstill not due to conservation, but because the country sent a large portion of energy-heavy manufacturing jobs to other countries.

He continued to address various commonly cited statistics, especially those involving expected energy usage. In 2050, if certain estimates hold, the U.S. will need to produce roughly 102 terawatts of power. It currently produces less than 30.

The issue, then, is achieving this level with the technology available. Fossil fuels would be one viable suggestion. According to statistics from an array of geologists, oil reserves will last for at least 200 years, natural gas reserves for 400 years and coal reserves for up to 2,000 years – far longer than many predictions have guessed.

However, the carbon emissions that accompany fossil fuel usage would devastate the Earth. Nuclear fuel, which the French have embraced, would only be viable if a new plant was built every 1.8 days for the next 40 years. And wind energy would be insufficient by itself.

The solution, then, would be solar power. His work, and the impetus behind the Rochester Section of the ACS giving him the Harrison Howe Award, focuses on recreating photosynthesis – plants have run on solar power forever, and his hope is that this method could be technologically reproduced.

So far, there have been successes, but the current technology is costly, and the field of scientists working on the area is small. Nocera hopes to change that, especially with aid from UR. According to Holland, though there are not yet direct collaborations between UR and MIT, efforts are being made to do similar research at the University.

“We have a number of faculty throughout the campus who are leading research on alternative energy,” he said. “Chemistry advances will be central to solving the energy challenges of the coming century, and in our Chemistry and Chemical Engineering departments there are a lot of people working on catalysis, fuel cells, photovoltaics, and photonics.”

Nocera finished the evening with a call to action by chemists, many of whom were excited by the possibilities, and warned the crowd with something he heard from late author Kurt Vonnegut: “Worry about us; the Earth is going to be okay.”

Brenneman is a member of the class of 2009.



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