There is a potential solution, and possibly only one, to the global energy crisis. It will require a huge investment, several scientific breakthroughs and a little luck. But unless we give it the very highest priority, it will soon be too late.
That's the message that a highly respected professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology has been delivering for several years now, but it's not clear whether anyone is listening. Nate Lewis isn't your typical prophet of doom. He has won a list of awards as long as the beard he wore years ago as a young scientist when I first met him. And to hear him tell it, the solution to the energy crisis is as clear as the nose on your face, or at least the shadow it casts.
Lewis quips that he belongs to the "Willie Sutton school of energy management." When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton responded "because that's where the money is."
"I believe in that too," Lewis told an energy symposium at Caltech earlier this year.
In his case, however, Lewis is banking on the sun.
"More solar energy hits the earth in one hour than all the energy the world consumes in a year," he told the symposium. So if you want to solve the energy crisis, he argued, go to the bank where the energy is kept — the sun.
None of the other sources of energy, including fossil fuels that threaten our planet, or nuclear energy that has never lived up to its potential, can do the job, Lewis maintains. He isn't arguing in favor of those huge water bladders we are supposed to have atop our houses to capture heat from the sun. Lewis sees an entirely different solution. He sees cheap ways to convert solar energy directly into electricity, which can be used to convert water into fuel, like hydrogen, that can be turned back into electricity on demand.
What we need, he argues, is something as basic as paint that is engineered to capture electrons from the sun and make the electrons march into our utility lines. Go to your local home center, buy a bucket of paint and brush it on your roof to power all those gadgets and heat your domicile and create the fuel to run your scooter. Sounds pretty far out, but Lewis is dead serious.
There are, he readily admits, a few problems. Current technology can convert sunlight directly into electricity, and generate hydrogen, but it isn't scalable. One such device towers over nearby structures and it works, but it produces only a kilogram of hydrogen in an entire day, the energy equivalent to one gallon of gasoline.
"We need to find a better way to make fuel from sunlight directly so that we can bring energy to whoever wants it whenever they want it — day or night, summer or winter," Lewis told the Caltech symposium. "My lab and other labs at Caltech are working on that, too."
The answers need to come soon, he adds, to avoid disaster by about the year 2050.
But why only solar? Isn't a new generation of nuclear power plants on the horizon? Isn't the oil industry hiding huge reserves that will buy a few hundred years? Surely somebody out there is working on a new widget that will make our cars run on air. Why only solar?
Lewis ticks off the reasons: