Harvard chemist Daniel Nocera, winner of this year’s Conn Prize from the University of Louisville, says science has advanced beyond many of the obstacles in the way of the U.S. fully converting to renewable energy.
The Leigh Ann Conn Prize for Renewable Energy, awarded last week, recognizes game-changing achievements in renewable energy. U of L chose Nocera as this year’s winner for his work creating two devices to store energy: a low-cost rechargeable “flow” battery and an “artificial leaf.”University of Louisville
Though technology to generate energy from renewable sources — like solar panels and wind turbines — is pretty well developed, energy storage technology has lagged behind. That’s the focus of Nocera’s research: how to store the energy produced during sunny and windy times to use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
“The challenge comes when the sun goes down,” he said. “So all attention is turned to how do we store solar energy. ”
Nocera’s low cost, rechargeable “flow” battery is a giant battery that can be used at power plants to store the energy until it’s needed. He sold the invention to Lockheed Martin last year, and the company is currently further developing the technology. Nocera said the flow battery is what he calls “plug and play.”
“It’s good to go because it fits into a current infrastructure that we use now in society, which is wires and power companies,” he said.
Nocera’s artificial leaf is a little bit different. That invention duplicates the process of photosynthesis, which is when plants absorb sunlight and use it to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. There’s no current infrastructure to use hydrogen for fuel, but there could be at some point in the future.
Nocera said the industry is at the point where science has overcome many of the hurdles standing in the way of a country relying entirely on renewable energy. Overall, renewables are still more expensive than fossil fuels like coal, oil or gas, though the costs are dropping and Nocera expects renewable energy to be cheaper at some point in the future.
But now, he said it’s up to society to decide to make the switch.
“That change is happening, and I have a lot of hope that we really are ready to go from a science technology point of view,” he said. “Now, it’s kind of [a question of] political and social will. Once people decide this is what we want to do, we’ll do it.”
As the recipient of this year’s Conn Prize, Nocera will receive the Conn Prize medal and $50,000 award at a formal ceremony in March. The prize is managed by U of L’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research, and is named for the late daughter of center benefactors Hank and Rebecca Conn.
“You really see the world changing,” Nocera said. “For me, I was incredibly delighted to get this award, especially from Kentucky because it’s a coal-based state where it is cheaper and easier to use coal. And even people in Kentucky are looking out in the future saying, ‘I know it’s cheaper and it’s easier to get coal, but renewable energy is going to be really important to our future.’”
Nocera will also give a free public talk about his work in March.