Genie in the Bottle: Harnessing Photosynthesis

I’ve contended for years that, until we learn to work with and even mimic the economies of the natural world (biomimicry) rather than wield the bigger-hammer nature-be-damned approach, we will continue to make a mess of things. The holy grail to me has been for mankind to be able to harness the chemistry in which light energy can be converted to other forms of energy with no waste. Plants have done it for hundreds of millions of years. It’s called photosynthesis.

And in the best of all worlds, should we be able to split water and burn the hydrogen for power, if it could be done at point of use on the household or community level, it would obviate the need for a grid and maybe it would take energy out of the hands of the fossil-fueled corporations that have had the world by the throat.

I’ve been secretly hopeful that just such an energy source would actually happen in my lifetime after reading hints the process might be in reach. Maybe. Maybe not.

But there is some hope that sunlight-to-hydrogen at commercially practical scale may be a reality–in time to save what remains of Appalachia’s mountaintops and to bring our young men home from the oil wars.

While this is far from a given success, the potential is paradigm-shifting, solving both the supply and the waste sides of the global energy equation. As reported by FastCompany…

Just 45 days ago, Nocera and his team stuck an artificial cobalt- and phosphate-coated silicon leaf into a jar of water and managed to create power–at an efficiency that surpasses today’s solar panels, no less. The technique mimics photosynthesis by splitting hydrogen from water to generate power from the sun.

Tata and Nocera imagine that the research could lead to a refrigerator-sized “mini power plant” in a development that could, according to Live Mint, bring power to the three billion people currently living without.

Imagine a single bottle of (even dirty) water supplying the energy needs for a household. On the other hand, demand for water is already placing critical pressure on supplies. And the electrolysis process is certain to require finite resource minerals (like cobalt) to manufacture.

Meanwhile, while we’re dreaming, if conservation and improved efficiency and population control could be worked somehow into the conversation, I’d feel better when thinking there might be three billion more televisions watching the Home Shopping Network someday.

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About

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

13 Comments on “Genie in the Bottle: Harnessing Photosynthesis

  1. Make it a system of bottles capturing the wastewater of a home or community and convert the semi-solid wastes to methane before converting the water to hydrogen and oxygen and what’s left goes in the flower bed.

    Seems like I’ve been waiting for this system since the early 1970’s…

  2. You have to think that, if we’d put a small fraction into this that we’ve put into far less noble endeavors, we’d be so much closer now, or would have had this long ago. OTOH, the technology continues to move us closer to the potential of using our big brains for good, even while our corruptible souls find ways to turn good to ill. What a paradox we are.

  3. Cool stuff. I wonder, though, what the down sides are of handling and storing hydrogen at the local level.

    By the way, what do you mean by “the oil wars” and by “population control”?

  4. Oil wars? Really? Read: the conflicts (overt or covert) in which American youth have and will die to secure petroleum for American commerce because we have not developed alternatives or set parameters for how much energy per capita is reasonable and sustainable.

    And population is the elephant in the room for all fixed resource problems on a planet whose edges we can’t get beyond when water, air, soil, fisheries, phosphorus, ammonia, rare earths etc are depleted to support 9, 12, 15 billion consumers. I’m not talking control in a “rodent control” kind of way. I’d be nice if we could think seven generations ahead and limit procreation to match carrying capacity–if we could “take control” of our biological imperatives to reproduce rather than have that control come from Malthusian pushback.

  5. Harnessing photosynthesis, or using lessons from it to produce hydrogen, would not be that far off if we put our economic resources into this research. The megacorporate world shudders to think that this might be possible and will do all it can to slow this down.

    Population? How can you have an always expanding economy to make the rich even more wealthy without more people? Yes, it is the elephant in the room that few seem to recognize.

  6. I still don’t get the oil war thing.

    Population. Now that IS the elephant in the room. I’m all for sustainability, but frankly, a lot of ideas around the table just don’t scale very well to the population at hand. For example, burning recyclable wood to heat your home is a great alternative, but it doesn’t scale as a world-wide, or nation-wide, or state-wide, or even county-wide solution. All that nasty stuff in the air would kill us. Or maybe that’s how it does scale. If we choke off the world population to 1800’s levels, we can live that way again. More in harmony with nature. No blogs (boo!), no global warming (yea!). I don’t see how we get there. You wanna be the one who kicks the bucket for the sake of fewer bodies? If so, one down and a few billion to go. If not, where do we start?

  7. Con, for our options and contingencies on population, I recommend reading anything by Lester Brown, starting maybe here:
    http://diigo.com/0gai0

    This will be the ultimate test of our intelligence: to regain balance in our relationship with the life support systems of the planet. We can’t claim ignorance anymore.

  8. http://diigo.com/0gai0 –> Lots of problems, but I missed the solution. He seems to be saying we are already near or beyond a tipping point with too much population for the resources the planet can reasonably provide. I guess that means we need to get to a smaller population, live more efficiently, or get more resources. The last is problematic because consuming resources inevitably casts off nasty side effects. More efficient living probably only moves the problem and doesn’t solve it. So we need to be able to manage population better than we manage anything else. But an ethical and effective solution set for population management seems impossible. Tell me, what’s in that solution set?

  9. Con, of course there is no ONE answer. If there were it would be along the lines of “living as if there were only one earth, as if each human was entitled to a living portion of it, taking a seventh-generation view of everything we do that requires energy, makes waste and depletes shared resources.” Lester Brown has no easy answers. No one does. And it seems increasingly likely it will be irreversible conditions beyond the tipping points that bring population drastically down.

  10. Seems we (all several billions of us) should all be pretty humble about our common future and work it out together. Unfortunately, most dialog these days seems pretty tribal and pejorative. Maybe we should learn how to talk with each other first.

  11. I’d vote for that. But maybe listening should take precedence over talking. And acting as we must and should and can but don’t–over both of those.

  12. I’ll read it, thanks.

    Listening is a good. We should all perfect that skill first. Then speak humbly.

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