The artificial leaf

Published : 4 April 2011, 05:03 PM
Updated : 4 April 2011, 05:03 PM

When dredging the news to write my article this week, I had bumper crop of items from which to choose: I could have written about the clash of Christian fundamentalism in The US vs. fundamentalism in Afghanistan. Certainly, this is a rich topic. That crazy preacher in Florida whose actions caused ripples that led to the death of ten people and the wounding of 83 others could have been an object lesson on the responsibilities that freedom of religion compel us to observe.

I could have begged my Muslim friends never to take anything that anyone does in Florida seriously (beside spaceship launches). Come on, guys, this is Florida, after all! This is the state that botched a presidential election, a state of winter retirees fleeing the weather in the Northeast, many of whom are subject to bouts of dementia, yet still possess driver's licenses and handguns. This is the state whose most famous resident is Mickey Mouse! I could have interviewed the car dealer here in New Jersey who gave that anti-Islamic preacher a free car last year so that he wouldn't burn the Quran — that car dealer should have been on the Nobel Committee's short list.

I could have asked him if he felt ripped off. I could have talked about how Afghanis played right into the press-hungry preacher's hands by attacking the UN. American fundamentalist Christians hate the UN, and those deaths were probably met by a shrug and a comment like "Served them right" by that devil of a minister. I could have reported that the blood is truly on the hands of the press who reported the book-burning, which, universally denounced and sparsely attended, was not newsworthy to begin with.

I could have written about Nobel Prize winner President Obama's well-intended and ill-planned foray into Libya. Here are the military powerhouses he chose for support; Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Qatar and Spain. When we play baseball here, sometimes the adults play with the kids. We adults usually bat leftie to make things even. Is that the problem in Libya? Are we batting leftie so that Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Qatar don't feel left out?

According to my sources (which sounds way better than the truth, which is that I looked it up on Wikipedia), Denmark has a grand total of 1,400 deployed personnel in its entire army. That's right. In the whole country. That's roughly the size of my daughter's graduating class. Qatar has an army of 8,500 men. I know, I'm saying this tongue-in-cheek, but truthfully, what good has ever come of the United States (and friends) aiding a rebellion? As a Hungarian-American, I ask that question in all seriousness: Has the United States ever been a positive force for good in a rebellion which established a peaceful, long-lived government? This may be a naïve question, but I plumb the depths of my knowledge of American History, and I find no positive examples. In any case, I will not write about rebellions.

I could write about how I'll miss the World Cup, and the way it bonded me with people with whom I had very little else in common.

Instead, I will write on the most important news item of the week, the announcement of the single technology which may provide answers to questions regarding energy worldwide, and specifically in developing countries like Bangladesh.

In my backyard, I look longingly past my computer out on the sunny day. My friend stretches a deer hide over a rack and softens it into buckskin. The deer is "road kill"– a common sight here on the Jersey shore. Other hides he gets from zookeepers or butchers. My oldest daughter knows how to make leather from deer hides. My friend has recently put a down-payment on a yurt that he will install on land he plans to purchase. He will live in this round Mongolian tent. He has other friends who are also living in permanent yurts. Some even have dug basements under theirs!

In our productive backyard, native plants provide food for our table, much to the chagrin of the neighbours. We collect water off the roof which pools into two artificial ponds, each stocked with about 50 goldfish. The fish eat mosquito larvae, and the algae produced is watered into the garden to nitrify the soil. The trick has always been to find a good, independent source of electricity, especially with the nearby nuclear power plant scheduled for de-commissioning in 2017.  Next to my computer, I have trays of seedlings, started, by family tradition to honour the memory of my grandfather, on March 4th of each year. The men of the family tend the gardens, and will do the hunting in season. Self-reliance is a value that is cherished in the abstract, but not often practiced in suburban America. That's because self-reliance makes for ugly landscaping.

But as tied as we are to the land, as much as we embrace the primitive, the news out of MIT this week has energised us all, theoretically now, and hopefully, before too long, literally. This week, scientists have announced that they have produced the world's first practical, easy-to-manufacture artificial leaf.

The postcard-sized leaf, when exposed to sunlight and submerged in water, can generate 30 kwh of electricity, enough to power the average American household, and certainly enough to provide electricity for households in the developing world. But this is good news for a number of important reasons. First of all, it eliminates the need for centralised power generation, and therefore reduces interdependency between cities and rural areas. Combined with agrarian technologies, it will help developing countries move towards local politics focused on competing self-interest. Because this is a technology based on turning water into hydrogen (and oxygen), I am sure it will have interesting implications when it comes to the purification of the water supply.

Imagine these cells, the size of a playing card, submerged in water, placed in sunlight (What happens during the rainy season?) generating enough energy to power a refrigerator, an internet connection… Not saying that this is a portable technology. All the card does, as far as I understand, is to separate oxygen from hydrogen. The hydrogen still has to be stored and combined with carbon dioxide or oxygen to produce energy. Of all the news articles this week, this technology could have the most important implications for Bangladesh's future.

Politically, I have always been an advocate of decentralisation, independence, and systems of government in which the greatest concentration of power rest at the local levels, where the democratic process works best, and where party affiliation matters less than the ability to maintain roads and provide an adequate education. When government is decentralised, the true fundamentalism — cultures that value family, local custom, and ancient traditions tend to blend with nature itself. When such local villages are prosperous, the people, in my experience of rural world travel, tend to be warmer and friendlier than their urban counterparts, and often generous to the point of embarrassment.

City dwellers always feel a certain level of sanctimonious superiority over their rural counterparts, like I feel over that preacher in Florida, or almost anyone who ever visits my home feels over me when they see what's going on in my yard. But local culture tends to be the most efficient, and locally based education and values tend to be the most relevant to life in the given area.

Out of such relevance grow unique cultures that through the magic of the internet can be shared on a global scale. A nation of such cultures is like a field of wildflowers, a quilt of impossible variety, expressing the best and even the worst of human possibility, but never boring, never "pop" and very difficult to subject to the imperialism of the marketplace, or to the dictatorial greyness of human monocultures like China or North Korea. The irony is that the march of recent global technology is what permits a resurgence in human decentralisation.

Southeast Asia already has a vested interest in artificial leaf technology. Sun Catalytix, the company founded by David Nocera, inventor of the "artificial leaf" received funding from Tata in India to move the project forward. It is not hard to imagine why India knew enough to spearhead an MIT project. It is for the same reason I, an American born writer who has never visited Asia, am writing for you all in Bangladesh- Grad School. Though lifelong friendships in my small community at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, my network introduced me to this newspaper, and there I discovered the incredible, moving story of your people.

You, within your own nation have a wealth of different cultures and traditions to explore, all of which can be sustained by common technologies. When I finally visit your shores, I am sure I will marvel at the wonders of your cities and take many pictures of your famous buildings. Yet, I must confess that I am struggling with my first words in Bangla so that I may speak with people who live at the end of your dirt roads and fauna-filled forests. I am one of those people who can't accept that Westernisation equates with progress. My central question as regards Bangladesh is, given all the country has suffered over the last 50 years, could any other civilisation, any other home-grown philosophy have produced a culture so life-affirming?

When I eventually travel to Bangladesh, I believe I am going to a place that is as ethically removed from the burning of other people's holy books as it is geographically distant from Florida. One day, I will travel to your shores. I imagine I will find a people closer to my own sensibilities, as regards human life, than that of my representatives in Washington, or my fellow so-called "Christians" on the East Coast of the United States. If centralisation means the loss of commonsense values then decentralising technology like the artificial leaf may be exactly what humanity needs right now.

We struggle in the current economy, as large systems fall apart. Yet, I welcome the rise of a "localista" world. If it comes to pass, our children will live in an age of diversity and wonder, a verdant field of human wildflowers, appropriately powered by a human-made leaf.


Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called "You Think What You Think And I'll Think What I Know." He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, "Learning Little Hawk's Way of Storytelling", is scheduled to be released by Findhorn Press in May of 2011.