Biomimicry produces a solar energy breakthrough

by Mike Gaworecki

August 1, 2008

Biomimicry is the art of using the natural world as a basis for man-made designs. Wikpedia puts it better: “Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a relatively new science that studies nature, its models, systems, processes and elements and then imitates or takes creative inspiration from them to solve human problems sustainably.”

Real world examples include emulating the passive cooling of termite mounds in office buildings, applying the water repellant properties of lotus plants in fabric finishes, and adapting the echolocation abilities of bats for use in walking canes for the blind.

To me this is just a very cool idea: observing how nature has solved various problems, like overheating in Saharan termite mounds, then applying those lessons to human endeavors. The Earth is the ultimate sustainable resource, so it would seem obvious that we should learn everything we can about engineering and design from the natural world if we’re going to learn how to live as a part of the planet rather than living off of the planet – by which I mean, if we’re going to learn to live sustainably rather than continuing to live by raping and pillaging the Earth for all its resources.

Turns out some researchers at MIT have used biomimicry to make a potentially huge breakthrough in developing next-gen solar energy systems:

Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today’s announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.

Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. "This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years," said MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."

Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera’s lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun’s energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.

This is obviously a long way from being commercially available, but it’s nice to know this is on the horizon. This could be one of the breakthroughs that totally reshapes our energy industries: “Nocera hopes that within 10 years, homeowners will be able to power their homes in daylight through photovoltaic cells, while using excess solar energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen to power their own household fuel cell. Electricity-by-wire from a central source could be a thing of the past.”

That last line, of course, points out the biggest barrier to implementation of solar energy – it’s not the pace of technological development holding us back, but the companies who are making a killing off of supplying us all with power. You see, they are a centralized power source, a monopoly, an entity from whom you have to purchase your power. If everyone is able to make power at their home, we’ll have a decentralized energy grid where everyone is an independent energy producer. This is the way of the future, make no mistake – but that doesn’t mean plenty of industry players and their paid hacks won’t be vociferously protesting the deployment of these technologies.

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