Daniel Nocera’s Gift

I just saw the most important talk I have seen in 300+ TED, Pop!Tech, etc talks that I’ve watched.  And at the risk of hyperbole, I will say that the worst case scenario is that Daniel Nocera simply wins a Nobel Prize (and yes, I’m willing to bet at even odds that it happens in under 10 years from today).  But if the system is able to scale through replication, it will be at least as important as penicillin in terms of ending human suffering and will have a bigger impact on the world as a whole.  Here’s why:

  • Input: Water (clean, saltwater or dirty water)
  • Outputs: Electricity + Pure drinkable water
  • By products: nothing (other than what was in the water)
  • Resources required to assemble: all abundant and most have substitutes
  • Knowledge required to assemble: simple
  • Cost to assemble: relatively cheap

Essentially what Nocera has done is reverse engineered and re-created a super-simplified photosynthesis process.  It’s a closed loop (i.e. autocatalytic) so it’s actually more efficient to run his reactor on a fixed amount of pure water.  But if you want you can use a flow of new water (say, parasite infested water) and as a side effect you get clean water out; all you have to do is have a way to dispose of the impurities that get separated.  You could do that manually if necessary, but once you have energy, that becomes easier and may be automated.

Here’s why I’m really excited.  The system is so simple that it can be built and maintained locally by the bottom billion, for the bottom billion, without the need for an electricity grid.  Sounds like a micro-franchise model that could be taught at places like Barefoot College and could simultaneously create economic development and solve the world’s biggest humanitarian problem, both as a side effect.

And it can be purchased for home use by the rest of us taking our homes off the grid, paying for itself and becoming cash flow positive at some point.  Same for businesses.  What about portable energy, like for cars?  Well, if you have a surplus of energy and water, you can charge hydrogen fuel cells.  Or you can spin up flywheels, store electricity in lithium ion batteries, etc.

The biggest risks I can see are twofold:

  1. There crops up some collateral effects of running the system indefinitely that emerge over time and at great scale (e.g. some trace byproducts which were too subtle to notice get concentrated to the point of becoming toxic).
  2. The patent on the invention creates a roadblock to replicating the system across the globe.

The reason I’m willing to wager on the Nobel Prize is that I don’t think these risks would sink that ship.  I think it’s worthy of a Nobel in one of the sciences already.  While those can take decades to be awarded, I am comfortable about the 10 year mark because as we all know, the Nobel Peace Prize is winnable in 10 months.

Are others as excited about this as I am yet?  Here’s a clue: when the president of MIT learned about Nocera’s invention she called just one person to bring it to the world, someone she thought could understand just how big it is and someone who could properly shepherd it and nurture it.  He’s a venture capitalist who at one point had been a world-changing inventor himself.  His name is Bob Metcalf, and he invented ethernet, the communication transport mechanism of the Internet.

UPDATE: here’s the commercial company Nocera started: Sun Catalytix

  • Yeah I think so too. So why are we fooling around with all that other smart grid stuff. Let’s pursue what he’s got. Yeah. Skye

  • This sounds like the continual motion machine to me – when will we know if he can conquer the hurdles you’ve outlined??

    • Rafe Furst

      Doesn’t violate any known principles as it’s a thermodynamically open system. Converts sunlight to electricity, not mysterious or unexplainable like perpetual motion.

      My prediction (FWIW) is that because there is a patent, which is readable by all, and because those who stand to benefit most are in areas where intellectual property rights are non-existent and life-or-death hangs in the balance (i.e. no clean drinking water), this will be spread virally and replicated locally via market forces (i.e. one can make money building these things).

  • Pingback: Truthocracy – Part III – MIT Center for Collective Intelligence « The Emergent Fool()

  • Anonymous

    I’m as excited as you about this which I’ve only just ‘stumbled across’. I will be posting on it as much as I can and emailing my contact list to help spread the word. Amazingly I’ve heard nothing about it on Main Stream Media, but then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised !