I learn a lot about what's on the cutting edge of scientific research by listening to Ira Flatow on ScienceFriday, NPR. The segment I heard today (8 April 2011) was downright inspiring as the program presented some good possibilities for generating energy from sunlight by experimental technology that could separate of hydrogen and oxygen from water.They call it artificial leaf; its something like synthesized photosynthesis. This ScienceFriday edition is worth a listen.
Dr. Daniel Nocera of MIT talks with Ira about this very promising technology of using silicon to function in energy-gathering ways simulating what photosynthesis does in natural leaves, only better. Nocera's rap goes like this:
What does a leaf do? It turns photons into electrical current, stores the solar energy while splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. In this new tech, silicon replaces the leaf. Stored hydrogen produced thereby runs a fuel cell. This silicon system catches the sun as much as a hundred times more efficiently than a leaf.
The real breakthrough is that these researchers are using earth-abundant materials: silicon, cobalt, phosphate and cheap metal. Hence, some practical applications for energy generation are realized; they're building prototypes at MIT, with the experimental apparatus going for days with no drop in productivity. This water-breaking work has propelled progress well beyond the science; now its in the engineering phase.
Ira asks: whats next for commercial viability? Dr. Nocera says they're working toward the apparatus being the workable size of two doors and thus operating effectively. Passing water over silicon and producing energy, but without wires--that's the breakthrough-- making the necessary gases over surface of silicon. Next challenge is engineering a gas collection system, and now they're using regular water instead of something rarer, so that's the real promise of significant improvement.
Dr. Nocera also mentions in the closing comments that people in developing world are less dependent on old technologies than we are; that is something to be aware of. Folks in the developing world are more open to new techs, being less dependent on the old (fossil-fuel) ones.
This is cutting edge; you won't hear about it on fox or hln. That's why I appreciate ScienceFriday, and that's why I appreciate NPR.
Although I do not subscribe to the exclusively materialistic hypotheses through which Ira interprets our cosmological origins, I do appreciate the excellent coverage that he and his staff regularly provide on scientific frontiers.
And my appreciation extends beyond the ScienceFriday crew, to NPR generally, which is an informative aural venue through which we Americans can garner fuller understanding of our life on this finite planet as it exists today. National Public Radio is a place in broadcast space where we can hear, and participate in, real disscussions about relevant, timely issues. A little "liberal" perhaps, but its more productive, I think, than listening to some self-made mouthpiece who pontificates through a microphone and insults callers who disagree.
As a supporter of public radio, I hope to see ScienceFriday and all the other NPR programs continue. If the Repubs, of which I am one, succeed in cutting the funds for public broadcasting, I do not see that as an insurmountable obstacle for its continuance. I plan to continue my financial support. I truly believe that the excellence in journalism and educative programming supplied therein will find adequate means to prosper in the competitive world of commercial media--and without compromising their high journalistic and first-amendment standards.
If our Congress is inclined to consider cutting NPR out of the federal funding trough, I suggest that they defund Planned Parenthood instead, and then appropriate that money that would have otherwise aborted feti to promote growth--growth in public comprehension of the issues that define our existence in 21st-century America.
There's no sense in aborting feti when we will have dire need, in the future, for young working citizens to support our expanding Medicare demands and our waning energies.