Long-lasting flow battery could run for more than a decade with minimum upkeep – Harvard Paulson School of Engineering 


Battery stores energy in nontoxic, noncorrosive aqueous solutions

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a new flow battery that stores energy in organic molecules dissolved in neutral pH water.

This new chemistry allows for a non-toxic, non-corrosive battery with an exceptionally long lifetime and offers the potential to significantly decrease the costs of production.

The research, published in ACS Energy Letters, was led by Michael Aziz, the Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies and Roy Gordon, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science.

Flow batteries store energy in liquid solutions in external tanks — the bigger the tanks, the more energy they store.


Flow batteries are a promising storage solution for renewable, intermittent energy like wind and solar but today’s flow batteries often suffer degraded energy storage capacity after many charge-discharge cycles, requiring periodic maintenance of the electrolyte to restore the capacity.




By modifying the structures of molecules used in the positive and negative electrolyte solutions, and making them water soluble, the Harvard team was able to engineer a battery that loses only one percent of its capacity per 1000 cycles.


“Lithium ion batteries don’t even survive 1000 complete charge/discharge cycles,” said Aziz.

“Because we were able to dissolve the electrolytes in neutral water, this is a long-lasting battery that you could put in your basement,” said Gordon.

 

 

“If it spilled on the floor, it wouldn’t eat the concrete and since the medium is noncorrosive, you can use cheaper materials to build the components of the batteries, like the tanks and pumps.”

This reduction of cost is important. The Department of Energy (DOE) has set a goal of building a battery that can store energy for less than $100 per kilowatt-hour, which would make stored wind and solar energy competitive with energy produced from traditional power plants.


“If you can get anywhere near this cost target then you change the world,” said Aziz. “It becomes cost effective to put batteries in so many places. This research puts us one step closer to reaching that target.”

“If you can get anywhere near this cost target then you change the world,” said Aziz. “It becomes cost effective to put batteries in so many places. This research puts us one step closer to reaching that target.”

“This work on aqueous soluble organic electrolytes is of high significance in pointing the way towards future batteries with vastly improved cycle life and considerably lower cost,” said Imre Gyuk, Director of Energy Storage Research at the Office of Electricity of the DOE.

“I expect that efficient, long duration flow batteries will become standard as part of the infrastructure of the electric grid.”

The key to designing the battery was to first figure out why previous molecules were degrading so quickly in neutral solutions, said Eugene Beh, a postdoctoral fellow and first author of the paper.

By first identifying how the molecule viologen in the negative electrolyte was decomposing, Beh was able to modify its molecular structure to make it more resilient.

Next, the team turned to ferrocene, a molecule well known for its electrochemical properties, for the positive electrolyte.

“Ferrocene is great for storing charge but is completely insoluble in water,” said Beh. “It has been used in other batteries with organic solvents, which are flammable and expensive.”

But by functionalizing ferrocene molecules the same way as the viologen, the team was able to turn an insoluble molecule into a highly soluble one that could be cycled stably.

“Aqueous soluble ferrocenes represent a whole new class of molecules for flow batteries,” said Aziz.

The neutral pH should be especially helpful in lowering the cost of the ion-selective membrane that separates the two sides of the battery.

Most flow batteries today use expensive polymers that can withstand the aggressive chemistry inside the battery. They can account for up to one-third of the total cost of the device. 


With essentially salt water on both sides of the membrane, expensive polymers can be replaced by cheap hydrocarbons. 

This research was coauthored by Diana De Porcellinis, Rebecca Gracia, and Kay Xia. It was supported by the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability of the DOE and by the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

With assistance from Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD), the researchers are working with several companies to scale up the technology for industrial applications and to optimize the interactions between the membrane and the electrolyte.

Harvard OTD has filed a portfolio of pending patents on innovations in flow battery technology.

Harvard: Renewable Energy: Long-lasting flow battery could run for more than a decade


Flow batteries are a promising storage solution for renewable, intermittent energy like wind and solar.

Posted: Feb 09, 2017

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a new flow battery that stores energy in organic molecules dissolved in neutral pH water. 

This new chemistry allows for a non-toxic, non-corrosive battery with an exceptionally long lifetime and offers the potential to significantly decrease the costs of production.

The research, published in ACS Energy Letters (“A Neutral pH Aqueous Organic/Organometallic Redox Flow Battery with Extremely High Capacity Retention”), was led by Michael Aziz, the Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies and Roy Gordon, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science.

Renewable Energy 

Flow batteries are a promising storage solution for renewable, intermittent energy like wind and solar.

Flow batteries store energy in liquid solutions in external tanks — the bigger the tanks, the more energy they store. Flow batteries are a promising storage solution for renewable, intermittent energy like wind and solar but today’s flow batteries often suffer degraded energy storage capacity after many charge-discharge cycles, requiring periodic maintenance of the electrolyte to restore the capacity.

By modifying the structures of molecules used in the positive and negative electrolyte solutions, and making them water soluble, the Harvard team was able to engineer a battery that loses only one percent of its capacity per 1000 cycles.

“Lithium ion batteries don’t even survive 1000 complete charge/discharge cycles,” said Aziz.

“Because we were able to dissolve the electrolytes in neutral water, this is a long-lasting battery that you could put in your basement,” said Gordon. “If it spilled on the floor, it wouldn’t eat the concrete and since the medium is noncorrosive, you can use cheaper materials to build the components of the batteries, like the tanks and pumps.”

This reduction of cost is important. The Department of Energy (DOE) has set a goal of building a battery that can store energy for less than $100 per kilowatt-hour, which would make stored wind and solar energy competitive to energy produced from traditional power plants.

“If you can get anywhere near this cost target then you change the world,” said Aziz. “It becomes cost effective to put batteries in so many places. This research puts us one step closer to reaching that target.”

“This work on aqueous soluble organic electrolytes is of high significance in pointing the way towards future batteries with vastly improved cycle life and considerably lower cost,” said Imre Gyuk, Director of Energy Storage Research at the Office of Electricity of the DOE. “I expect that efficient, long duration flow batteries will become standard as part of the infrastructure of the electric grid.”

The key to designing the battery was to first figure out why previous molecules were degrading so quickly in neutral solutions, said Eugene Beh, a postdoctoral fellow and first author of the paper. By first identifying how the molecule viologen in the negative electrolyte was decomposing, Beh was able to modify its molecular structure to make it more resilient.

Next, the team turned to ferrocene, a molecule well known for its electrochemical properties, for the positive electrolyte.

“Ferrocene is great for storing charge but is completely insoluble in water,” said Beh. “It has been used in other batteries with organic solvents, which are flammable and expensive.”

But by functionalizing ferrocene molecules in the same way as with the viologen, the team was able to turn an insoluble molecule into a highly soluble one that could also be cycled stably.

“Aqueous soluble ferrocenes represent a whole new class of molecules for flow batteries,” said Aziz.

The neutral pH should be especially helpful in lowering the cost of the ion-selective membrane that separates the two sides of the battery. Most flow batteries today use expensive polymers that can withstand the aggressive chemistry inside the battery. They can account for up to one third of the total cost of the device. With essentially salt water on both sides of the membrane, expensive polymers can be replaced by cheap hydrocarbons.

This research was coauthored by Diana De Porcellinis, Rebecca Gracia, and Kay Xia. It was supported by the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability of the DOE and by the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

With assistance from Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD), the researchers are working with several companies to scale up the technology for industrial applications and to optimize the interactions between the membrane and the electrolyte. Harvard OTD has filed a portfolio of pending patents on innovations in flow battery technology.

Source: By Leah Burrows, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

MIT: A Big Leap for an Artificial Leaf: Making Liquid Fuel from Sunlight, Water and CO2: Video


A cross-disciplinary team at Harvard University has created a system that uses solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels. The system can convert solar energy to biomass with 10 percent efficiency, far above the one percent seen in the fastest-growing plants.

 

The bionic leaf is one step closer to reality.

Daniel Nocera, a professor of energy science at Harvard who pioneered the use of artificial photosynthesis, says that he and his colleague Pamela Silver have devised a system that completes the process of making liquid fuel from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water. And they’ve done it at an efficiency of 10 percent, using pure carbon dioxide—in other words, one-tenth of the energy in sunlight is captured and turned into fuel.

That is much higher than natural photosynthesis, which converts about 1 percent of solar energy into the carbohydrates used by plants, and it could be a milestone in the shift away from fossil fuels. The new system is described in a new paper in Science.

 

 
“Bill Gates has said that to solve our energy problems, someday we need to do what photosynthesis does, and that someday we might be able to do it even more efficiently than plants,” says Nocera. “That someday has arrived.”Artificial Photosynth ext

 

 
In nature, plants use sunlight to make carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water. Artificial photosynthesis seeks to use the same inputs—solar energy, water, and carbon dioxide—to produce energy-dense liquid fuels. Nocera and Silver’s system uses a pair of catalysts to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, and feeds the hydrogen to bacteria along with carbon dioxide.

 

 

The bacteria, a microörganism that has been bioengineered to specific characteristics, converts the carbon dioxide and hydrogen into liquid fuels.

 

 
Several companies, including Joule Unlimited and LanzaTech, are working to produce biofuels from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, but they use bacteria that consume carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, rather than hydrogen. Nocera’s system, he says, can operate at lower temperatures, higher efficiency, and lower costs.

 

 
Nocera’s latest work “is really quite amazing,” says Peidong Yang of the University of California, Berkeley. Yang has developed a similar system with much lower efficiency. “The high performance of this system is unparalleled” in any other artificial photosynthesis system reported to date, he says.

 

 
The new system can use pure carbon dioxide in gas form, or carbon dioxide captured from the air—which means it could be carbon-neutral, introducing no additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. “The 10 percent number, that’s using pure CO2,” says Nocera. Allowing the bacteria themselves to capture carbon dioxide from the air, he adds, results in an efficiency of 3 to 4 percent—still significantly higher than natural photosynthesis.

 

 

“That’s the power of biology: these bioörganisms have natural CO2 concentration mechanisms.”

 

 
Nocera’s research is distinct from the work being carried out by the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded program that seeks to use inorganic catalysts, rather than bacteria, to convert hydrogen and carbon dioxide to liquid fuel.

 

 

According to Dick Co, who heads the Solar Fuels Institute at Northwestern University, the innovation of the new system lies not only in its superior performance but also in its fusing of two usually separate fields: inorganic chemistry (to split water) and biology (to convert hydrogen and carbon dioxide into fuel). “What’s really exciting is the hybrid approach” to artificial photosynthesis, says Co. “It’s exciting to see chemists pairing with biologists to advance the field.”

 

 
Commercializing the technology will likely take years. In any case, the prospect of turning sunlight into liquid fuel suddenly looks a lot closer.

 

Harvard Researchers Develop New System for Producing Stable, Amorphous Nanoparticles from Wide Material Range


Before Ibuprofen can relieve your headache, it has to dissolve in your bloodstream. The problem is Ibuprofen, in its native form, isn’t particularly soluble. Its rigid, crystalline structures — the molecules are lined up like soldiers at roll call — make it hard to dissolve in the bloodstream. To overcome this, manufacturers use chemical additives to increase the solubility of Ibuprofen and many other drugs, but those additives also increase cost and complexity.

David A. Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Applied Physics (Photo by Eliza Grinnell, Harvard SEAS.)

The key to making drugs by themselves more soluble is not to give the molecular soldiers time to fall in to their crystalline structures, making the particle unstructured or amorphous.

Researchers from Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) have developed a new system that can produce stable, amorphous nanoparticles in large quantities that dissolve quickly.

But that’s not all. The system is so effective that it can produce amorphous nanoparticles from a wide range of materials, including for the first time, inorganic materials with a high propensity towards crystallization, such as table salt.

These unstructured, inorganic nanoparticles have different electronic, magnetic and optical properties from their crystalized counterparts, which could lead to applications in fields ranging from materials engineering to optics.

David A. Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and an associate faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, describes the research in a paper published today in Science.

“This is a surprisingly simple way to make amorphous nanoparticles from almost any material,” said Weitz. “It should allow us to quickly and easily explore the properties of these materials. In addition, it may provide a simple means to make many drugs much more useable.”

The technique involves first dissolving the substances in good solvents, such as water or alcohol. The liquid is then pumped into a nebulizer, where compressed air moving twice the speed of sound sprays the liquid droplets out through very narrow channels. It’s like a spray can on steroids. The droplets are completely dried between one to three microseconds from the time they are sprayed, leaving behind the amorphous nanoparticle.

At first, the amorphous structure of the nanoparticles was perplexing, said Esther Amstad, a former postdoctoral fellow in Weitz’ lab and current assistant professor at EPFL in Switzerland. Amstad is the paper’s first author. Then, the team realized that the nebulizer’s supersonic speed was making the droplets evaporate much faster than expected.

“If you’re wet, the water is going to evaporate faster when you stand in the wind,” said Amstad. “The stronger the wind, the faster the liquid will evaporate. A similar principle is at work here. This fast evaporation rate also leads to accelerated cooling. Just like the evaporation of sweat cools the body, here the very high rate of evaporation causes the temperature to decrease very rapidly, which in turn slows down the movement of the molecules, delaying the formation of crystals.”

These factors prevent crystallization in nanoparticles, even in materials that are highly prone to crystallization, such as table salt. The amorphous nanoparticles are exceptionally stable against crystallization, lasting at least seven months at room temperature.

The next step, Amstad said, is to characterize the properties of these new inorganic amorphous nanoparticles and explore potential applications.

“This system offers exceptionally good control over the composition, structure, and size of particles, enabling the formation of new materials,” said Amstad. “ It allows us to see and manipulate the very early stages of crystallization of materials with high spatial and temporal resolution, the lack of which had prevented the in-depth study of some of the most prevalent inorganic biomaterials. This systems opens the door to understanding and creating new materials.”

This research was coauthored by Manesh Gopinadhan, Christian Holtze, Chinedum O. Osuji, Michael P. Brenner, the Glover Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics and Professor of Physics, and Frans Spaepen, the John C. and Helen F. Franklin Professor of Applied Physics. It was supported by the National Science Foundation, Harvard MRSEC and BASF through the North American Center for Research on Advanced Materials (NORA), headed by Dr. Marc Schroeder.

Source: http://www.harvard.edu

MIT Professor: Power Your House With 5 Liters of Water Per Day – March 2009 – Where Are We Today?


MIT Solar Water Power splash

March 27, 2009 – At the Aspen Environment Forum today, MIT professor Dan Nocera gave a revolutionary picture of the new energy economy with an assertion that our homes will be our power plants and our fuel stations, powered by sunlight and water. And it’s not science fiction.

Nocera stated that even if we put all available acreage into fuel crops, all available acreage in wind power, and build a new nuclear power plant every 1.5 days, and we save 100% of our current energy use (yes, you read that correctly), we will still come up short by 2050. His estimate is that we will need 16 TW of energy production by then, and with our current methods, we won’t get there.

But there is a solution. And we don’t need to invent anything new to get from here to there.

Nocera said that MIT will announce its patent next week of a cheap, efficient, manufacturable electrolyzer made from cobalt and potassium phosphate. This technology, powered by a 6 meter by 5 meter photovoltaic array on the roof, is capable of powering an entire house’s power needs plus a fuel cell good for 500 km of travel, with just 5 liters of water.

The new electrolyzer works at room temperature (“It would work in this water glass right here”) to efficiently produce hydrogen and oxygen gases from water in a simple manner, which will enable a return to using sunlight for our primary energy source.

This technology will decentralize power production and provide true energy independence. The details of implementation still need to be worked out, but Nocera says that fears of hydrogen technology (safety) are unfounded, as companies that work with these gases have the capability to safely store and use them.  “It’s safer than natural gas. You burn that in your house with an open flame. Now that’s dangerous.”

*** Team GNT Writes: In 2009 – Professor Nocera’s announcement was, well … “stunning” to the Renewable Energy community to say the least. So what has become of Professor Nocera’s research?

Where Are We TODAY? – The Artificial Leaf

Prof D. Nocera df12556_79822

“Nocera’s critics—and there are many—want people to know that, in their view, the artificial leaf is virtually a nonstarter in today’s renewable energy landscape: The technology doesn’t plug into the existing power infrastructure (the “grid”), it’s not that cheap or efficient, and hydrogen as a fuel is no safer than other combustible fuels.

Mike Lyons, a chemist at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, told Chemistry World magazine last year, “Dan’s a great story teller. But that has its inherent dangers.” Other critics point out that Nocera’s own start-up company, Sun Catalytix of Cambridge, Massachusetts, quietly shelved development of the artificial leaf technology a few years ago.

*** From a Special Report: National Geographic “Innovators” Series ***

As usual, Daniel Nocera came in by the back door.

On a rainy night in April, as the trees on the Boston College campus were sending out their first tentative shoots of spring, Nocera arrived (slightly late) as the keynote speaker for a meeting of the American Physical Society, where he was about to discuss a decidedly inorganic variation on a vernal theme: the “artificial leaf,” his invention that uses sunlight to generate an alternative form of energy.

Nocera made his way across a parking lot, went in the “Employees Only” entrance to the banquet hall, asked a bemused janitor for directions, and found himself in an elevator that deposited him right in the middle of the kitchen. “I’m the speaker tonight,” he told an equally bemused maître d’. “Do you know how to get there?”

“You’re in the right place,” the maître d’ announced. “Follow me!” And the man proceeded to lead Nocera out to the dining room.

“Whaddarewe having tonight?” Nocera asked in his rapid, exuberant New York patois, as he passed line cooks preparing roast beef, chicken, and vegetarian lasagna. Because he sees everything through the lens of photosynthesis, the meal becomes material for the talk he was about to give.

To save the planet from the dire consequences of its hydrocarbon addiction, we are going to have to overhaul our entire energy system.

Life on Earth has converted energy from the sun for at least three billion years, and the sun may be the answer to our energy needs in the future, he begins. He tells the audience that even the food they are starting to digest is unleashing energy from chemical bonds originally forged by the sun.

Nocera, 56, is a professor of energy at Harvard University, and a bit of a celebrity innovator in renewable energy circles, but he never forgets (and never lets you forget) that he has always taken the hard way, the less-traveled way, and certainly the less conventional way—from his second-grade excommunication from parochial school, to his defiant rejection of the immigrant values of his Italian American family, to his serial desertions from high school to follow his favorite rock band. It was almost inevitable that his scientific career would also follow a quixotic path.

Saving the Planet From Hydrocarbon Addiction

Nocera rarely passes up an opportunity to explain the artificial leaf. He estimates that he gave a hundred invited talks last year, and almost all the rubber-chicken sermons dwell on sustainability and renewable energy. Of all his provocative assertions, however, perhaps the most radical is not scientific but socioeconomic: To save the planet from the dire consequences of its hydrocarbon addiction, we are going to have to overhaul our entire energy system, and the only way to do that, he says, is to “take care of the poor.” They will be the early adopters of the artificial leaf, he believes, and they will lead the way to an era Nocera echoes Bryan Furnass in calling the “Sustainocene.”

It’s not a particularly popular, or even feasible, message at the moment, and the frequent talks are also a reminder that sometimes the hardest part of innovation comes after you make the discovery.

Daniel Nocera, a professor at Harvard University, is a bit of a celebrity innovator in renewable energy circles. PHOTOGRAPH BY DEANNE FITZMAURICE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

It takes a special temperament to want to be the kind of messenger that everyone wants to shoot; if not born to the part, Nocera has certainly warmed to the task. Mischievous child, rebellious teenager, long-haired counterculture scientist—they’re all on his resume. And although in photographs he projects an ascetic, almost clerically severe demeanor, he turns out in person to be a gregarious provocateur, charmingly pugnacious and as ebullient as the bubbles in the beaker of his most famous invention.

“Because I Was an American. I Had to Succeed.”

Nocera first became interested in science as a kind of buffer against the almost yearly relocations his family made—Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey—to accommodate his father’s frequent work transfers (he was a retail buyer for Sears and later J. C. Penney). “The most defining point of my young life was when I was having breakfast one morning and I found out our house had been sold,” he says. “People ask, ‘Why did you become a scientist?’ Because when you’re waking up and you lose your friends every morning because you’re moving again, you start focusing on things you can control. I really turned to science because I could carry it with me.” The things he carried included a microscope and radio he built himself, assembled with the 1960s version of do-it-yourself science kit.

“In and Out” of School

One of his earliest experiments, alas, was throwing a “really chalky” eraser at a nun at his parochial school because he was curious to see what kind of mark it would leave on a black habit; the result was “spectacular,” but he was invited to leave. He embraced the rough-and-tumble of public schooling, even as he rejected his family. “I didn’t like my parents,” he says bluntly. “They always drove me so hard.” To get even, the teenaged Nocera became a member of an Orthodox synagogue in Tenafly, the northern New Jersey town where the family finally settled. “To annoy my Catholic mother,” he says, “I decided to join a temple. I became the best Jew.”

His academic career was spotty, too—he attended Bergenfield High School in northern New Jersey, but only intermittently (“in and out” is how he puts it). “I was the kid with the long hair that all the parents would tell all the other kids, ‘Stay away from him!'” By the time he was in high school, he started disappearing for weeks at a time to follow the Grateful Dead at concerts. “I really went to the Grateful Dead because I needed a family of people,” he says, “and the Grateful Dead is about family.” (The computer in his spare, corner office at Harvard contains 111 gigabytes of Grateful Dead music, to which he listens while writing scientific papers.)

I really turned to science because I could carry it with me.

Given that background, Nocera was not exactly a Westinghouse Science Talent Search kind of kid. He attended Rutgers University and initially planned to pursue biology, until everyone in his family told him he should be a doctor, at which point he switched to chemistry. After graduating in 1979, he entered the Ph.D. program at one of the world’s citadels of hard science: California Institute of Technology.

His adviser at Caltech, Harry Gray, had done pioneering work in photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into usable energy. Alternative energy was much in the air because of the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, and Nocera became captivated by the idea of using sunlight like a leaf does, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. “I went to graduate school to do that,” he says, and spent the next 30 years trying to get the idea to work. But an innovative idea in energy, he learned, isn’t enough; the idea has to be cheap enough to compete “against the cold, hard facts of a real economic system.”

In 1995, a special issue of the journal Accounts of Chemical Research asked leading chemists to describe “holy grail” projects in the field; one of the essays, by Allen J. Bard and Marye Anne Fox, then at the University of Texas at Austin, described the process of splitting water using sunlight. The sheer simplicity of the process conceals its chemical elegance—it takes energy to break chemical bonds, such as the bonds that hold hydrogen atoms to oxygen in a molecule of water, and plants use the energy of sunlight to break those bonds. The result is hydrogen and oxygen. Plants release oxygen into the air and repurpose the hydrogen to make food, in the form of carbohydrates. But hydrogen on its own, as a gas, is a clean and storable form of energy known as a chemical fuel; it can be stored for later use, and that’s what Nocera was after.

Meet the Artificial Leaf

The idea is simple and elegant, but not easy and especially not easy without considerable cost. (John Turner of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado had in fact achieved a version of water-splitting years earlier, but the process used prohibitively expensive materials.) Nocera began working on a cheap and simple approach during his grad school days at Caltech, continued after he took a job as a professor at Michigan State University in 1984, and finally declared success in a splashy 2011 paper in Science as a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he moved in 1997.

Nocera’s artificial leaf can split oxygen from hydrogen—mimicking the natural process of plants. PHOTOGRAPH BY DEANNE FITZMAURICE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

What does an artificial leaf look like?

“We can go in the lab,” Nocera says, rising from his desk. “I’ll just turn on a fake sun, and we can look at it. I mean, right now! Just to prove how easy it is. And you’ll see, like, bubbles coming … smooooosh!” Snapping his fingers, he adds, “It will be that fast.”

In reality, the artificial leaf—at least the demonstration version a graduate student fetched out of a lab drawer—looks more like a sawed-off postage stamp than an appendage on any self-respecting tree. It’s not green; it’s not leaf-shaped; and it doesn’t convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, as plant leaves do. But after a few minutes of setup, the graduate student placed the “leaf” in a little beaker of water and focused light on it. Within moments, a steady stream of miniscule bubbles scrambled off the leaf, like a rat race of effervescence.

The leaf is actually a thin sandwich of inorganic materials that uses the energy of sunlight to break the chemical bonds holding hydrogen and oxygen atoms together in ordinary H2O. The leaf works because the middle of the sandwich is what’s called a photovoltaic wafer, which converts sunlight into wireless electricity, and that electricity is then channeled to the outer layer of the “leaf,” which is coated with different chemical catalysts on either side. One accelerates the formation of hydrogen gas, the other oxygen.

The artificial leaf mimics the natural process of photosynthesis. PHOTOGRAPH BY DEANNE FITZMAURICE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Renewable Energy Celebrity

Armed with this basic invention, Nocera leaped ahead—too far and too fast, according to some of his critics—to a radical vision of how the artificial leaf would revolutionize the world. In a scenario he often shares in talks, he sees artificial leaves on the roof of every house, using sunlight to convert ordinary tap water into hydrogen and oxygen; the photovoltaic cells could provide electricity during daylight hours, and the hydrogen could be stored and later converted in a fuel cell to electricity overnight. Your house would become your personal power plant and your gas station, fueling the hydrogen-powered cars that Nocera says are already on the way. And, as he likes to say, “You can buy all this stuff on Google today.”

In 2011, when Nocera first described the artificial leaf at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, the immediate reaction was huge. MIT issued a big press release. Nocera formed a start-up company, Sun Catalytix, to commercialize the invention. There were YouTube videos; Nocera became a renewable energy go-to celebrity, invited to events like the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado. And when he decided to move his research group to Harvard in 2012, online chemistry blogs dissected the transfer as if it were a superstar trade in baseball. “Nocera to Harvard!” ChemBark reported.

But not all the attention has been positive, not least because of the term “artificial leaf.” Many scientists thought it was a grandiose, attention-getting name. “Oh, they hate me!” Nocera confirms. “It’s like sport to come after me. But you can see with my retiring personality that it’s very upsetting to me,” he adds with a smile. Indeed, it brings out the combative public school persona in him. “It’s like being outside the boys’ room and getting into fights,” he says. “I did that a lot of times in my life, so I’m pretty good at this.”

“Frugal Innovation”

Despite the criticism, Nocera notes that the artificial leaf incorporates several key innovations. One is the discovery of a special kind of catalyst (created by then-lab member Matthew Kanan in 2008) that basically accelerates the formation of oxygen without depleting itself; in other words, the cobalt-phosphate coating on one side of the leaf acts as a middleman-facilitator to the chemical splitting of water without either using itself up or charging a minimal fee (in terms of energy). Another is that the basic architecture of the leaf is simple, modular, and relatively inexpensive, satisfying Nocera’s desire for what he calls “frugal innovation.”

Nocera wakes up every morning thinking about how to make the artificial leaf technology cheaper, more efficient, and simpler so that it will be impossible to resist the frugality of its innovation.

The company had “really tough discussions” in the fall of 2011, Nocera admits, about whether to proceed with a pilot project to test the artificial leaf idea in a developing country, and decided to “backburner” the technology until it could be done more cheaply. As Nocera puts it, “I did a holy grail of science. Great! That doesn’t mean I did a holy grail of technology. And that’s what scientists and professors don’t get.”

Sun Catalytix has shifted its focus to another technology—one that plugs into the existing infrastructure, but still advances the cause of renewable energy; it’s called a flow battery, and Nocera believes it will provide a cheap, innovative way to store energy on the grid. Meanwhile, Nocera insists, the company “has not given up on the artificial leaf” and still plans to field-test the idea, but only when the technology is less expensive. “So what are we talking about?” he says. “Innovation to reduce cost.”

A fuel cell can turn the split oxygen and hydrogen from the artifical leaf into energy. PHOTOGRAPH BY DEANNE FITZMAURICE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Revolution in Renewable Energy

Nocera is a self-confessed workaholic. He says he works up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and he wakes up every morning thinking about how to make the artificial leaf technology cheaper, more efficient, and simpler so that it will be impossible to resist the frugality of its innovation.

But he’s also chastened by the challenge ahead. On the one hand, he sees a projected world population of nine billion people by 2050, who will need an estimated 30 terawatts—30 trillion watts—of energy; building 200 new nuclear power plants a year for 40 years, he tells the Boston College audience, wouldn’t satisfy the demand. On the other hand, traditional venture capitalism in the developed world doesn’t have the patience or vision, he says, to invest in the massive changes necessary to create an alternative energy system.

In the developed world, Nocera points out, venture capitalists want a return on their investment in two to five years—”and five is really generous,” he says. Setting up an alternative, photosynthetic-based energy system will never satisfy the appetite for a quick return on investment. “What’s the VC community good at?” he says. “An app that a kid can do in a college dorm—which many have done at Harvard. And it gives them their success stories, and makes them all rich. But these are apps. We’re not talking about high-end [innovation]. With energy, we’re talking about changing a massive infrastructure. There’s nothing a kid in his college room dorm is going to do that’s going to change a massive infrastructure.”

How massive? There’s no firm, agreed-upon figure on America’s historical investment in the current power infrastructure—the power plants, the coal mines, the oil rigs and fracking wells, the refineries, the railroads and ships that transport fuels, the wires that bring electricity to virtually every home. Nocera estimates the number at $150 trillion since the mid-19th century, and it is the $150 trillion gorilla in the energy debate.

“There’s nobody in a Harvard lab or at MIT who’s going to make a discovery—one discovery—that’s going to change an infrastructure that this country built over 150 years,” he says. “You’re at hundreds of trillions of dollars. So what is one person with a bunch of students in a lab going to do?”

That is why he believes the revolution in renewable energy will happen not in the developed world, with its entrenched infrastructure and its impatient venture capitalists, but in places like Africa and India, where there is no existing infrastructure to block the way. And don’t mistake Nocera’s interest in the poor for altruism; it’s pure practicality.

“People say, ‘Oh, it’s so nice that Nocera is doing something for the poor.’ It makes my blood curdle! I’m not helping the poor. I’m a jerk! The poor are helping me. They don’t have an infrastructure, so they’ll walk you to a renewable energy future.”

Given his unconventional past, this future makes perfect sense to Nocera. “I can start looking back over my life, and I can see how my immigrant family and being poor Italians and following the Grateful Dead—it all fits in some way,” he says, face brightening. “The whole energy project. I mean, and then you share it, and it’s distributed! The Grateful Dead!”

Hightable with Kate Bingham: Exclusive Sitdown with the UK’s Premier Biotech VC


An insight into the thoughts of biotech’s foremost investor.

 

 

 

 

 

Kate Bingham is one of the pre-eminent life sciences venture capitalists in the UK. In addition to her role as a Managing Partner at SV Life Sciences, she sits on numerous advisory boards such as the Wellcome Trust Technology Transfer Strategy Panel. Kate read for a Biochemistry degree at Oxford University before undertaking an MBA at Harvard as a Kennedy scholar. Prior to joining SV Life Sciences, she spent time as a Strategy Consultant for Monitor and has worked in business development at Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

 Can you tell me about your early career decisions? Why did you move into the Venture Capital sector?

After my Biochemistry degree I worked as a Strategy Consultant at Monitor Company. This was a great learning tool and provided me with solid experience which I have subsequently been able to draw on. The plan was always to use my consulting experience as a training period. I then did an MBA at Harvard before starting at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Business Development. Whilst at Vertex I got headhunted into Venture Capital and entered the profession quite out of the blue – not particularly useful for readers with similar aspirations, I’m afraid!

What kind of tasks is a Venture Capitalist involved in on a regular basis?

Well, there are a number of tasks and responsibilities that I might be engaged in on an average day. Every three to four years we are involved in generating new funds. In between those times, we need to ensure that we are keeping investors interested and expectation management is an essential part of what we do. Besides generating new funds, we also search for new investment opportunities and therefore need to keep on top of what is happening in the life sciences sector. We spend a considerable amount of time working on the investments that we make and then, of course, the final step is to make a successful sale. With all of the different elements of the job we have close contact with a number of individuals, such as the investor assessment manager (affiliated professionals who manage additional private funds), the people who buy our companies and of course, with entrepreneurs. All of the partners and investors at SV Life Sciences have had a career in discovery and development; it is clearly easier to teach someone how to do a deal rather than the background of biotech innovations!

What is it about your job that excites you most?

Excitement arises when we move into a new area. There might be a need for a new approach and yet we have a limited amount of data to use. Will we be able to make it work? The whole sector is extremely fast moving. I am also interested in the science behind the business and the effect that a product might have on patients’ lives. For example, our portfolio includes a company focusing on potassium channel inhibitors for hearing loss. Until now, there has been no treatment for such a condition; hearing aids have limited capabilities and can overload the user with background noise.

How do you go about differentiating promising start-ups from those that are less likely to succeed?

There are a number of things that we consider: novelty of the science, whether the market opportunity is present, and the competitor profile. Additionally, we take into account whether there is scope for a strong intellectual property application and if there is a sensible timeframe in which we can receive feedback on the clinical efficacy of a product. We also carefully consider whether the company has the right people to enable it to do the job and be successful. Negatives such as ill-defined products or too many people make us think twice about the opportunity on the table.

Have you encountered any major challenges during your career and if so how did you approach such hurdles?

Yes, there have been a number of challenges, especially when companies fail. For example, there is a difference between the UK and the US with regards to trading insolvency. In the US you can trade until your very last cent, irrespective of debt, whilst in the UK you have to stop trading once your capital has reached your level of debt. In such a situation, the importance of managing expectations from the offset is paramount.

In a recent letter to The Guardian you wrote about a shift in the pharmaceutical industry which has led to a much higher rate of biotech acquisition and a decrease in in-house R&D. In your opinion does this shift in the sector have any negative connotations?

There are no real negatives with this relationship. Biotech companies, which are comparably smaller, have greater capabilities with regard to decision making. This increases efficiency as well as the potential for creativity. A direct analogy with how the film industry operates can be made; large corporations, such as Warner Bros., get ideas from smaller producers who pitch to the corporations. They in turn provide the required capabilities, marketing and distribution.

What advice would you have for Biochemistry grad students and finalists who are unsure as to their future career path?

If you want to get involved in the development of new drugs, then there is no substitute for experience. When selecting and applying for positions, you obviously need to ensure that you will be well funded and that you have done a lot of research on the company and the employer. Make sure that it is possible to make a meaningful contribution within the available timescale of the project or role that you are applying for. It is always a good idea to do a post-doc with an entrepreneurial professor. Prof Steve Jackson at Cambridge University, for example, is known to allow interested scientists to get involved in his spin-out companies.

What does the future have in store for the biotech sector? What are the major challenges that it will face?

I believe that the practice of small biotech companies feeding into big pharma companies will continue and that this symbiotic relationship will keep getting stronger. Individual pharma companies will need to find a happy balance between internal and external R&D. Pharma now buys companies in a different way, in that they are paying less upfront but have a structure for longer term returns. This influences the interaction between the different people involved. In general, I think that academics with greater flexibility will prosper most through the resulting spin-outs.

Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable would like to thank Kate Bingham for this opportunity and fascinating insight.