Some revolutions start with a whimper barely noticed. On April 25, 1953, a short paper written by two relatively obscure scientists was published in the British journal Nature. That article by James Watson and Francis Crick described the double helical structure of DNA. The authors famously ended their paper with the classically understated conclusion that the structure they elucidated "suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." The quest to understand DNA's structure was a bit messy, and some would say achieved with dirty play; but no matter the process, with that article a revolution was born, one that still reverberates today.
We may look back 50 years hence and draw a similar conclusion about a brief news article published in the April 2011 issue of Science, the American counterpart to Nature. The short review mentions a presentation given at this year's American Chemical Society annual meeting in which chemist Daniel Nocera explains the results of his team's research over the past three years. (The paper describing this latest work has not yet been published; the team is in the process of patenting their discovery). What Nocera and his team did, barely noticed, was create an "artificial leaf" that could revolutionize our quest for renewable energy much as the Watson and Crick paper revolutionized the field of biology.
Nocera, working at MIT, improved on previous catalysts used to break water molecules into free hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight as the energy source. His catalysts, yet to be revealed pending publication of his paper, are said to be cheap and work well in water rather than in the harsh and caustic environments required of previous catalysts. The team hopes to bring an intermediate technology using external electricity as the power source to market within two years. The goal is to create shortly thereafter an inexpensive sunlight-to-hydrogen water splitter, which could be considered the Holy Grail of renewable energy. If the sun can be used efficiently and inexpensively to produce hydrogen in large quantities, much of our energy problem is solved. Hydrogen is available in unlimited quantities, and if produced from water by sunlight emits no pollutants and no greenhouse gases -- and no radioactivity.
With current technologies, the high cost of producing hydrogen has hampered any transition to a hydrogen economy, presenting the classic chicken and egg problem: nobody wants to invest in its expensive production if the infrastructure to use the fuel is absent, but nobody wants to build the infrastructure without an abundant supply. This problem would be easily overcome if hydrogen production using sunlight became cheap and ubiquitous.
With increased production of cheap hydrogen the transition from fossil fuels would be relatively easy. Right now the United States produces about nine million tons of hydrogen every year, enough to fuel 25 million cars or power up to eight million homes. The infrastructure in some sense exits; it just needs to be expanded, which would happen readily in the face of abundant supplies. The technology to use hydrogen as fuel to create electricity is relatively mature but is advancing toward ever greater efficiency; and when compressed is a viable transportation fuel. The transportation sector consumes about 30% of all energy in the United States. Hydrogen is the only potential on-board renewable energy source that can meet that demand as a purely renewable resource.
Abundant and cheap hydrogen might finally kill once and for all the false notion that environmentalism is the ideology of left wing socialists. The issue of climate change would be addressed without provoking a backlash from deniers. Perhaps in the face of a cheap abundant supply of hydrogen we would actually have a consensus that renewable energy is the true engine of all future economic growth. Just as the United States rose to greatness on the engine of industrialization, the world's next great superpower will come to dominate by advancing green technologies.
The false choice offered by the right between green and growth is dangerous not only to the environment but to our national security. The next superpower will be the country that moves quickly to hydrogen should that source become available cheaply. Consider the national security implications of moving successfully to a hydrogen economy free from the tyranny of foreign oil. The Middle East will become nothing but another spot on the map, contributing no more than Tanzania or Lichtenstein to world affairs. Consider the benefits of clean energy from sunlight giving life to factory and farms with local sources of power invulnerable to attacks on a national grid. Imagine a transportation sector that pollutes nothing but a few drops of water from each tailpipe. Imagine this as you contemplate the price of oil climbing back up to $140/barrel or more. Opportunities abound. Currently the United States generates only 18% of its energy through the use of renewable technologies. We can do much more.
The future belongs to those seeking to integrate green and growth. This is how our national interests will be secured. This is where jobs will be created. This is where our national security can be best realized. The United States should rightfully lead this charge to a new future, but only will if the faithful right wing skeptics adopt a more enlightened attitude appropriate to the 21st century and move away from the odd idea that any effort to discuss green growth is gratingly smug. Possibly technology will break through our political sclerosis and allow us to achieve the future that is within our grasp.
Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, A New Moral Code (Jacquie Jordan, Inc Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.