Second Ko Lecture Highlights Sustainable Energy for Everyone

Daniel Nocera speaking at UC Davis
Daniel Nocera speaking at UC Davis.

Daniel Nocera, a Harvard professor who helped pioneer artificial photosynthesis, recently told an audience at UC Davis that achieving a truly sustainable Earth will only happen by helping people living in poverty. And the only way to get people out of poverty is to give them clean energy, Nocera said.

“If you think you have carbon dioxide problems in 2017, wait for 2050 when you have six billion new energy users coming online using fossil fuels,” Nocera said Feb. 9 at the second installment of The Winston Ko Public Lecture Series: Frontiers in Mathematical and Physical Sciences. “Conservation isn’t good enough, we need something more.”

Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University, is one of many researchers working to produce clean and economical energy from sunlight. Nocera’s invention, the artificial leaf, mimics photosynthesis by using sunlight to generate hydrogen gas from water. Despite success in the lab, technical challenges such as lack of infrastructure remain a barrier to bringing alternative energy to consumers, Nocera said. For example, in the developed world, historical investment in oil, gas and coal impedes the switch, Nocera said. “There is no scientist that is going to come up with one invention that will displace a $12 trillion investment,” he said.

That’s why Nocera thinks the solar power revolution will first take hold in areas such as India and Africa, where there is no widespread fossil fuel infrastructure. He calls this new era the Sustainocene—a world where billions of people produce their own power by artificial photosynthesis.

About the series

The Ko Lecture series was endowed by Dean Emeritus Winston Ko upon his retirement from the UC Davis Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. The series began in 2016 with a presentation from Veronika Hubeny, a UC Davis professor of physics who is probing the nature of black holes and gravity. Ko’s gift also established a Professorship in Science Leadership to recognize an outstanding faculty member in the division. 

— Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science

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