US awards $122M for new lab that will spin sunlight into fuel

DOE wants lab to move sunlight energy out of the labs and into the streets

nasa sun shot
Making clean fuel out of sunlight is the idea behind a $122 million US Department of Energy award to a team of California researchers.

The award will bring about the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), which will be led by the California Institute of Technology in partnership with the DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  The lab will bring together researchers in an ambitious effort aimed at simulating nature's photosynthetic techniques for practical energy production with the goal of developing a commercial-grade solar energy-to-chemical fuel conversion system, the DOE stated.

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Research at JCAP will be directed at the discovery of the components necessary to assemble a complete artificial photosynthetic system: light absorbers, catalysts, molecular linkers, and separation membranes, the DOE stated.   

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, the DOE stated.

 "In order to replace fossil fuels, we need to get a lot more proficient at harvesting sunlight and converting it into forms of energy that can be used for transportation and other human needs. Nature provides a model solution to this problem through photosynthesis. We want to emulate this process but do it with artificial materials that could be much more efficient and use much less land. The ultimate goal would be to deploy an artificial photosynthetic system across a large geographical area, at a level of efficiency that could provide the United States with a significant alternative fuel source," said  Berkeley Lab director Paul Alivisatos, an authority on nanocrystals for solar energy applications and founder of the Helios: Solar Energy Research Center.  

The JCAP, or Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub is but one of three such integrated labs the DOE will fund this year.  In May, the DOE announced that a team led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory will establish a hub on modeling and simulation for nuclear reactors. The selection for the remaining Hub will be announced over the coming months. 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, the DOE stated.

A New York Times story on the hub said being able to produce fuel this cleanly would be game changing. "So many biofuel startups and even oil and gas giants are chasing the same goal: to produce clean, affordable fuel at scale that could replace gasoline in existing automotive and jet engines. Companies like Coskata, Codexis and LS9 are all engineering microorganisms and catalysts to convert feedstocks ranging from corn to municipal waste into usable fuel. But so far, none of these businesses have been able to gain serious traction."

Energy from sunlight isn't the only effort the DOE is sinking its money onto lately.  The agency in June said it would invest $24 million in three research groups to tackle the challenges of bringing algae-based biofuels to market. According to the DOE, the basic concept of using algae as an alternative and renewable source of biomass feedstock for biofuels has been explored, but a scalable, sustainable and commercially viable system has yet to emerge.   The DOE went on to say that a great deal of research and development is still necessary to reduce risks and uncertainty associated with the algae-to-biofuels process so it can be commercialized. Other areas must be addressed as well such as regulations and standards, and public-private partnerships, the DOE stated.

The DOE also wants to kick up the research and development of offshore wind projects as it looks to achieve its goal of producing produce 20% of the country's electricity from wind farms by 2030.  The DOE Wind Program is looking to hone in on what it calls specific advanced technology, gigawatt-scale demonstration projects " that can be carried out by partnerships with a wide range of eligible organizations and stimulate of cost-effective offshore wind energy deployment.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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