DOE Awards Up to $122M for Making Fuel from Sunlight

Revolutionary — that’s how the Department of Energy describes the methods for generating fuels directly from sunlight that the agency hopes will emerge from a new project in California. The DOE announced on Thursday morning that it will award up to $122 million over five years to a team of scientists in a so-called “Energy Innovation Hub” dedicated to simulating the natural process of photosynthesis and using it for “practical energy production.”

The basic idea is to take sunlight, water and carbon dioxide, run it through a highly efficient system that mimics plants’ process for capturing energy from the sun, and reap a clean fuel that’s ready for use in transportation without further processing — a daunting task. As Wired has pointed out, the idea of recycling carbon dioxide through this type of artificial photosynthesis has been kicked around for years, but has “has generally been considered too difficult and expensive to be worth the effort,” and as recently as 2008 researchers estimated it remained a decade or more away from large-scale implementation.

At the California Cleantech Open conference in San Jose, Calif. on Thursday, DOE Undersecretary Kristina Johnson announced the awards and said the idea behind these hubs was the brainchild of DOE Secretary Steven Chu. Johnson also said more funding to “hubs” would be available in the future, including funding for a “building hub.”

To get started, the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, or JCAP, will receive $22 million during the 2010 fiscal year, followed by an estimated $25 million per year over the next four years, pending appropriations from Congress. Heading up the project will be the California Institute of Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Cal Tech’s Nathan Lewis will direct the research, which will span light absorbers, catalysts, molecular linkers and separation membranes for a complete photosynthetic system. Other scientists involved in the project include Bruce Brunschwig and Alta Devices co-founder Harry Atwater of Cal Tech, as well as Peidong Yang of UC Berkeley and the Berkeley Lab.

According to the DOE’s announcement today, the goal of this highly ambitious project is to “develop an integrated solar energy-to-chemical fuel conversion system and move this system from the bench-top discovery phase to a scale where it can be commercialized.” In the long term, the agency says it hopes this push to launch solar fuels research out of the lab will end up “setting the stage for the creation of a direct solar fuels industry.”

Of course, we already derive fuels from the photosynthetic process at some level. With fossil fuels we have the challenge of dealing with a nonrenewable resource that releases greenhouse gas emissions when we burn it. Meanwhile, with biofuels, as the DOE notes, “the overall efficiency of converting sunlight to plant material and then converting biomass into fuels is low.” The idea with artificial photosynthesis is to cut out the middle man: the plant.

Senator Dianne Feinstein commented in a statement today that if this concept can be scaled up through the JCAP project, it would deliver at least three benefits: “It would help scrub the atmosphere of excessive carbon dioxide, help eliminate our dependence on oil, and generate an innovative industry in the heart of California,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user snappybex

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