Can We Turn Solar Energy into Chemical Fuel?

by | published August 9th, 2010

When I was a student, I attended a lecture by famous two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling.

I remember Pauling proclaiming to an enthralled audience that, if we want to generate unlimited energy, we need only harness the power of plants. He was speaking of photosynthesis, the process of combining sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to create energy.

Years later, we may be well on our way to doing just that.

Whenever discussion turns to renewable (naturally replenished) sources of energy, solar always pops up. And then, after just a few minutes, it moves right off the topic list again.

It’s not that looking to sunlight to generate energy is uninteresting or that it is not being used – far from it, on either count.

Its problems come from the high cost of solar technology, an inability to store the energy received, very uneven potential (depending on the region of the world), and the more limited use of what energy is released.

The storage shortcoming calls for better battery technology – something now hot on the research agenda. But the usage limitation has resulted in one of the more fascinating ideas to come down the pipeline in some time…

Fuel from Sunlight

Currently, solar cells can only produce electricity. But what if solar power could do for us what it does for plants? What if it could actually produce fuel?

Washington is all over this one.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has just announced a five-year award of up to $122 million. The grant is going to a Cal Tech-led group of “push the envelope” scientists from a number of disciplines. And what they are charged with doing will boggle the mind.

Their task is to produce fuel directly from sunlight.

To say this is a “game changer” is like saying the harnessing of fire “sort of changed things.”

The “Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub” is pursuing one overarching question: If plants can use photosynthesis to generate fuel, why can’t we?

The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) – to be led by Cal Tech and the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – will be the focus of activity as the hub draws specialists from a number of California universities, think tanks, and research labs.

The goal is nothing less than the development of an integrated solar-energy-to-chemical-fuel conversion system, with the further application from the laboratory to the market. The hub will be funded at up to $22 million this fiscal year, with subsequent annual grants of $25 million in each of the next four years (subject to Congressional appropriations).

This is not the only “energy hub” idea moving forward with DOE support. The department believes the bringing together of a multidisciplinary team to stimulate new breakthroughs is going to be very successful.

In addition to the solar initiative, two other recent decisions are on the schedule.

One, yet to be announced, focuses upon the design, construction, and retrofitting of buildings with significantly greater energy efficiency results than current structures. A second, already underway at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, seeks major advances in the modeling, design, and engineering of nuclear reactors. These are all second-generation strategies, based upon the DOE’s successful Bioenergy Research Centers.

As the DOE puts it, “The hubs are large, multidisciplinary, highly-collaborative teams of scientists and engineers working over a longer time frame to achieve a specific high-priority goal. They will be managed by top teams of scientists and engineers with enough resources and authority to move quickly in response to new developments.”

However, the solar approach is a long stretch – longer than anything the U.S. government has ever attempted.

A New “Solar Fuels” Industry

According to the DOE, JCAP research will be directed toward the discovery of the functional components necessary to assemble a complete artificial photosynthetic system: light absorbers, catalysts, molecular linkers, and separation membranes. The hub will then integrate those components into an operational solar fuel system and develop scale-up strategies to move from the laboratory toward commercial viability.

The ultimate objective is to drive the field of solar fuels from fundamental research – where it has resided for decades – into applied research and technology development, thereby setting the stage for the creation of a direct solar fuels industry.

As with the other energy hubs and the biofuels initiatives, the idea is to assist in the development of significant new directions in energy research and engineering through early stages of R&D, to the point where the technology can be handed off to the private sector.

This approach, cutting across disciplines and areas of expertise, may just be the way to do it.

That eventually means non-fossil fuel energy solutions, new employment, and new companies. The last, of course, allows you to invest in them as soon as they go public. Could even be the way to turn green energy into profitable stock picks.

This may not be coming around the corner tomorrow. But both availability and adverse environmental impact have accelerated concerns for the still hydrocarbon-intensive energy sector. The increasing calls for the government to do something may have finally been answered.

And this could alter both our view of energy… and how we invest in it.


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