Why Oil Really Fell Today—and Could Keep Falling

It might be time to focus on scientists rather than speculators.

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Oil slipped below $120 at one point today and now overall is down nearly 20 percent from its July high of near $150. But I don't think the drop had much to do with the usual suspects—a weak consumer spending report, less risk that Tropical Storm Edouard will smack the Gulf Coast—which will surely be mentioned in the financial pages tomorrow.

I think the drop had everything to do with reports this weekend that MIT chemist Daniel Nocera seems to have discovered a cheap—by a factor of 1,000—and easy way to separate hydrogen from water. Scientific American puts the advance in context:

According to John Turner, a research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., who was not involved in the research, the discovery could reduce the need for platinum in a conventional electrolyzer. He believes it could also play a role in a future large-scale hydrogen generator, which would collect the energy from sunlight in huge fields and then run that electric current through water to produce vast amounts of hydrogen to meet, for example, the demand from a future fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles. "That's what his advance is pointing towards," he says, "finding an alternative catalyst that will allow us to do oxygen evolution (breaking the bonds of water or H2O and forming oxygen) in concert with hydrogen" on a grand scale.

Apparently Nocera believes that this technology could become widespread within a decade. Check this out: "In a future hydrogen economy, he imagines, a house would function much like a leaf does, using the sun to power household electricity and to break down water into fuel—a sort of artificial photosynthesis."

Bottom line: I think research into alternative energy technology is moving ahead way faster than the Washington politicians realize. (But we still need to exploit oil and coal and nuclear to bridge the gap from a hydrocarbon to post-hydrocarbon economy.) And it is all happening without spending trillions of dollars in taxpayer money for energy-themed Manhattan Projects or Apollo programs. This possible breakthrough came from MIT's Solar Revolution Project, which was funded to the tune of $10 million by telecommunications entrepreneur Arunas Chesonis. Heroic capitalism strikes again.


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