Scientists from UC Berkeley, Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology have been given $122 million to come up with ways to produce fuels directly from sunlight.
The U.S. Department of Energy announced the grant Thursday to a team led by Caltech in Pasadena, also includiing Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, UC Berkeley and Stanford. The team's mission: Develop practical methods of manufacturing "carbon neutral" fuels similar to the way plants create energy via photosynthesis.
"Finding a cost-effective way to produce fuels as plants do - combining sunlight, water and carbon dioxide - would be a game changer, reducing our dependence on oil and enhancing energy security," said Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman in announcing the grant.
"We're not talking about solar panels," said Peidong Yang, a professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley who heads the Bay Area branch of the project. "We are going to develop technology to convert solar energy directly into chemical fuels like methanol, ethanol or just gasoline, through CO2 reduction."
The five-year project is to be conducted under the auspices of the officially named Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, or, by its more user-friendly name, the "Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub." It's the second "energy innovation hub" set up by the Obama administration to "pursue transformative breakthroughs in technology that can help us meet our energy and climate challenges."
In May, the DOE announced a nuclear energy hub led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Third on the DOE's docket: a hub looking to make advances in energy-efficient buildings.
Nature's model solution: Scientists have a pretty good handle on how photosynthesis works in the natural world, but only in principle on how it might be adapted artificially and commercially.
The Sunlight hub's mandate, according to a DOE fact sheet, is "to demonstrate a scalable and cost-effective solar fuels generator that, without the use of rare materials or wires, robustly produces fuel from the sun 10 times more efficiently than current crops" (links.sfgate.com/ZKAF).
In other words, to beat nature at its own game - with all the challenges that entails.
"This is something you can't do today," said Anders Nilsson, a Stanford University scientist who will be working on the project alongside colleagues at the Stanford-run SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park. "The idea is to conduct research to see if this can be developed. If this could work, it would have a huge impact that will change our society."
"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," said Paul Alivisatos, director of the Berkeley lab where the Bay Area branch of the project will be headquartered.
"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."
Pie in the sky? To one Berkeley alternative- energy analyst, who did not wish to be quoted by name, "it sounds like another 'breakthrough technology' Hail Mary pass."
On the other hand, UC Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen, who is not associated with the project, says, "there could be applications for this in a very few years."
"I really would not put a timeline on the commercialization of such a technology, as it does not exist today," said Yang. "What we hope is that through such concentrated large scale research, we're able to expedite its development and implementation."
The project, which also involves UC campuses in Santa Barbara, Irvine and San Diego, is scheduled to get off the ground this year, according to the DOE.
"Which means right now," Yang said.
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