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Professor Discusses Energy Infrastructure of the Future

By Hannah Natanson, Contributing Writer

Harvard Chemistry and Chemical Biology professor Daniel G. Nocera discussed his vision for the energy infrastructure of the future on Wednesday night in the Science Center.

Nocera, who left the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to join Harvard’s faculty two-and-a-half years ago, said his vision for the future is fundamentally “anti-engineering.”

“This is why I had to leave MIT,” Nocera said to laughter from the audience. “There are a lot of engineers and I wanted to destroy the grid.”

Nocera described today’s energy infrastructure as “unsustainable” because it delivers energy via expensive power plants that roughly half the world cannot afford to build. His mission, he said, is to develop a new energy source to serve as the base unit of a more cost-effective system.

“If McDonald’s had a business model of the way we build energy systems, they would only make one large hamburger and we would all drive to it and take a bite out of it,” Nocera said. “What I’m going to do is try to build little hamburgers and then hand them out to everybody.”

Nocera has, in part, accomplished this goal. He has constructed his hamburger—an “artificial leaf,” as he calls it—that can convert sunlight to hydrogen.

The hamburger delivery system, however, is missing.

“[W]e’ve made a great fuel that there’s no infrastructure in your daily life to accept,” Nocera said.

Investors currently have no motivation to fund a hydrogen infrastructure because people are not demanding it, according to Nocera. He added that the impetus is on consumers to effect meaningful change.

Physics professor Melissa Franklin, who introduced Nocera before his speech, said she was disappointed with attendance at the event.

“I wish more students had been here,” Franklin said.

Titus Jahng ’12, who returned to campus for Nocera’s lecture, agreed. Jahng, now a mechanical engineer, said that watching a similar lecture as an undergraduate “basically directed” his career path after graduation.

“I became excited about…engineering…because of talks like this,” he said. “[They’re] very important.”

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