The department of chemistry will host world-renowned energy researcher and chemist Daniel Nocera of Harvard University to give a series of lectures and to interact with students and faculty from April 24-26. Headlining Nocera’s visit is his presentation entitled “The Global Energy Challenge,” a free event open to the public on Wednesday, April 24 at 4:30 p.m. in the Pavilion.
He will also give a lecture named “The Chemistry of Solar Fuels” on Thursday, April 25 at 4:30 p.m. in Driscoll Hall Room 132, as well as the keynote address at the Sigma Xi Undergraduate Research Symposium on Friday, April 26.
Nocera, a pioneer in the field of clean and renewable energy, has focused his research on developing inexpensive and efficient energy sources that may be implemented in impoverished countries. He is best known for his invention of an “artificial leaf,” a device capable of converting energy from the sun into a chemical fuel that may be stored, similar to the process of photosynthesis in real leaves.
Nocera has enjoyed an illustrious professional career, during which he has taught at prestigious institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, been named to Time Magazine’s 2009 list of the top-100 most influential people in the world, founded the company Sun Catalytix to advance energy conversion and storage technologies and won countless honors for his contributions geared toward finding solutions to the planet’s energy sustainability problem. This list constitutes a mere sliver of Nocera’s many achievements.
Members of the chemistry department say the University is fortunate to host such a dynamic figure in the midst of next week’s Earth Day activities.
Amanda Grannas, associate professor in the department of chemistry, explained that because it is a rarity to have someone of Nocera’s stature agree to such an involved and extended visit, no opportunity will be spared to engage or to learn from this special guest.
“The goal of [Nocera’s visit] is to have significant interaction between him and the students,” Grannas said.
Bringing in a big-name speaker like Nocera became a reality when the University was awarded funding in the form of the Jean Dreyfus Boissevain Lectureship for Undergraduate Institutions last August.
This lectureship, granted by the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, provides the necessary funds for undergraduate institutions to host leading researchers. The University was one of just six schools to qualify for this distinguished opportunity.
This grant also supports the summer research initiatives of two undergraduate students. Freshman chemistry major Garrett Waligroski and junior chemistry major Jacob Black were recently announced as this year’s summer fellowship recipients.
Although Nocera conducts research across many different areas, he is primarily concerned with coming up with more efficient ways to store, convert and transmit energy.
“The fundamental part of [his research] is trying to design new catalysts that can be used for solar energy conversion,” Grannas said. “Dr. Nocera is trying to come up with ways that we can be as good as Mother Nature.”
Nocera’s artificial leaf invention is a perfect example of this. When placed in a container of water and exposed to sunlight, this device separates hydrogen from oxygen, a process known as water oxidation. These elements may then be collected and stored as a chemical fuel capable of generating power.
Nocera’s ultimate intention with the artificial leaf is to develop it from a laboratory prototype into a live technology, allowing people to carry their own energy-producing devices to accomplish daily activities like firing up their coffee maker. Were this form of energy production and consumption to become common practice, there would be less of a dependence on the traditional, more inefficient method of distributing energy from power plants out to the masses.
This vision, “the personalization and decentralization of energy,” as Grannas phrased it, is what sets Nocera apart from his colleagues.
Jared Paul, assistant professor in the department of chemistry, said that there is no exact timetable for the release of this technology, noting how multiple complex components need to be developed further before everyone is walking around with their own personalized energy sources.
However, he did mention that if anyone is up to the task of actualizing this idea, it is Nocera, due to his visionary, big-picture approach to this project.
“Nocera’s pretty special because he’s doing it all and looking at the whole thing,” Paul said.
Grannas and Paul encourage students across all disciplines to attend Nocera’s lectures, noting his relatable nature and his ability to set the context for what the global energy challenge actually is.
“He’s really good at bringing this down to a level where everyone can understand it and appreciate it,” Grannas said.
Paul, who is familiar with Nocera’s work and has seen him speak on multiple occasions, called him “a phenomenally informed and dynamic speaker.”
“Anyone who comes to this talk will walk away significantly more informed about the realities of solar energy and our energy future than they were when they walked in,” Paul said.
Lectures like the one Nocera will be giving on April 24 are crucial for spreading the word about these realities, as well as motivating young people to start looking for ways to tackle these pressing issues.
“He has a clear vision of where the future can go if we increase public awareness and really educate people,” Paul said. “After seeing his lecture, you’re going to come away completely inspired.”