Posted tagged ‘Photosynthesis’

Why Obama is right and McCain wrong on Energy: MIT edition

August 1, 2008

Continuing the energy theme just a little longer….

This may be a bit of home-institution boosting, and I haven’t done any due diligence on this press release, but still, this is promising news out of Daniel Nocera’s lab at MIT.  It is also a perfect example why Obama’s emphasis on alternatives to oil and coal is the better choice of governing philosophies for US energy policy, and McCain’s oil now, oil forever approach is not.

Nocera and his post doc, Matthew Kanan have taken a long look the process of photosynthesis that enables plants to extract usable energy from sunlight.  They’ve come up with a two-step process that can split ordinary, neutral pH water into hydrogen and oxygen to supply the feedstocks for fuel cells that could supply electricity to power cars, homes or whatever.  The key to the idea is the use of solar-generated electricity to power the electrolysis taking place in the Nocera lab’s device.  More detail in the press release, and Nocera’s general description of this line of research here

There is, as always, the caveat:  this is a research finding, not an industrial process.  It will take time and significant engineering creativity to turn this advance into a major source of energy and a partial replacement for carbon-based fuels — if it ever gets there.

But this is the necessary initial step.  You don’t get alternative energy unless you do the research.  You can’t do the research if you can’t get funding.  It is difficult — though to be sure, as this finding shows, not impossible — to pay for this work when you have a disinterested or actively hostile, petroleum-addicted President and administration.  A President Obama would do so — candidate Obama has already made that very clear as recently as yesterday, whatever the national press thought of the important news of the day.  A President McCain, delivering on candidate McCain’s promise to develop all available domestic sources of oil….not so much.

Here’s the MIT press release making the point for me:

The success of the Nocera lab shows the impact of a mixture of funding sources – governments, philanthropy, and industry. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and by the Chesonis Family Foundation, which gave MIT $10 million this spring to launch the Solar Revolution Project, with a goal to make the large scale deployment of solar energy within 10 years.

You don’t get what you don’t pay for.

And as a lagniappe, this bit of barely informed editorializing:  the reason McCain’s approach is wrongheaded is not just that there it encourages the use of polluting sources of energy instead of pursuing clean or cleaner sources; it’s not that there is some mystical reward to using a renewable source as opposed to a notionally available, notionally cheap(ish) nonrenewable source — this isn’t a tree – hugger argument.  No, it’s wrong because it increases the liklihood that the transition we will have to make someday to a non-oil based economy will come harder, more expensively, and more destructively than it needs to, or would under a more science – friendly approach.  The real energy question is when and how much do you want to pay the piper.

That is:  McCain hasn’t noticed, though he has surely been told, that oil is something of a mug’s game,  coming under pressure from both supply and demand sides.  Between peak oil and the rise of major developing nations — economies that remained tied to oil are buying into not just an increasingly high price for their energy, but also a significant, and I would bet, on nothing more than a hunch, an increasing risk of oil shocks, major disruptions in supply  and/or price over the next decades.

That, as much as the absolute cost of energy as a share of any economic activity, is what ought to scare people, (if my hunch is correct).  Major uncertainty is a very expensive quality; when the probability collapses into a particular damaging event, the impact on real people’s real lives is profound.  Why on earth should we place ourselves more in the path of such an oncoming train than we have to.

And one last note — as I’ve given Marc Ambinder some eminently deserved grief (hey–if he can assert his judgment as fact, so can I) for his blithering yesterday about why he isn’t talking about energy, he has a solid post about Obama’s economic message today that contains a bit of content reporting and a bit of process analysis.  Nothing fancy, but just an example of a beat reporter writing a clear and useful little story from within his defined territory.  Credit where credit is due.