Bangalore: In the first such effort, Tata group chairman Ratan Tata has signed on a leading scientist from the globally renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to commercialize cutting-edge research that promises to produce cheap power from water.
Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry and energy, and his group of elite scientists at MIT attracted attention from Tata when he heard they had found a way towards one of science’s holy grails—to imitate photosynthesis, the process by which plants breathe, and produce power while doing so.
“I met him in September, and in October we signed,” Nocera said on the sidelines of EmTech India, a technology conference organized by MIT’s magazine for innovation, Technology Review.
Nocera would not disclose any more details of the deal. “I think you should ask Mr Tata that,” he said, before flying to Mumbai to meet Tata on Monday.
As he did with the Nano small car and the Swach non-electric water purifier, Tata hopes Nocera’s solution will be the latest in the group’s effort to serve the “bottom of the pyramid” and turn a profit while doing so, said a Tata group executive who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Tata’s hope is that Nocera’s “personalized energy” can produce a stand-alone, mini-power plant, perhaps a refrigerator-sized box, that could reinvent rural electricity supply and bring power to about three billion people worldwide who don’t have it.
Nocera said MIT’s technique has seen more than a year of preliminary research and hopes to produce enough electricity from a bottle-and-half of water, however dirty, to power a small home.
“We hope to have a prototype in a year-and-a-half,” said Nocera, whose other backers include Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet and a former director of the US’ Central Intelligence Agency.
It is too early to say which Tata company will take MIT’s technology to market, the Tata official said. The Swach water purifier was developed by three Tata companies.
The deal with MIT is fundamentally new for the Tatas because Nocera’s technology is at a very early stage. As Nocera acknowledged, his research has not yet been published, though it is being submitted to the journal Science.
The idea of imitating the tiny chemical engines in plants, which essentially generate power from the sun by splitting water molecules, is not new and has energized science since the 19th century. Commercially available electrolyses devices can split water, but they are costly and need clean water.
Nocera’s solution can use even human waste water, “from the front and back”, as he put it euphemistically.
It was only 45 days ago that Nocera’s scientists made their biggest breakthrough, plunging an artificial silicon “leaf”, coated with a proprietary solution of cobalt and phosphate, into a jar of water and coaxed it to generate power at efficiencies that now exceed solar panels.
Still, the process of cracking the “most guarded secret of plants”, as Science magazine put it in 1912, is still in the research stage, and there are many issues that need to be solved. That includes dealing with the waste gases produced and how to get the system into a box that can be manufactured and sold on a mass scale.
“Mr Tata told me, ‘You know what you’re getting with me, right? Patience’,” said Nocera, who is also the energy industry’s go-to man for global energy calculations.
Nocera estimates that the world consumes 14 terawatts (TW) of power today. By 2050, it will need 16TW. If his solution works, said Nocera, it would need a swimming pool full of water every day to meet the world’s electricity needs. For the Tatas, the bet on Nocera and MIT is obviously likely to be a big one.