Plants fuel the world with their ability to convert sunlight into a usable form of energy. Now, the Department of Energy is putting up $122 million to help humans capture the energy of the sun and create renewable liquid fuels through “artificial photosynthesis.”
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena were selected to lead the ambitious research project, the energy department announced Thursday. Its aim is to master the basic science involved, and develop applications that can be scaled up for commercial use.
“The sun is by far the largest source of energy available to man, but we must find a way to cheaply capture, convert and store its energy if we are to build a complete clean energy system,” said Nathan Lewis, a Caltech chemist who will serve as director of the sun-to-energy research collaboration, called the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis.
Scientists acknowledge the formidable challenge of creating tiny devices that will mimic the microscopic inner workings of one of nature’s more intricate processes — photosynthesis. Plants are able to absorb sunlight, water and carbon dioxide, and in a marvel of nature’s ingenuity, yield oxygen and carbohydrates that fuel most life on Earth.
But instead of yielding a simple carbohydrate, artificial photosynthesis would be designed to create oxygen and liquid fuels such as hydrocarbons or alcohols that could be directly pumped into
vehicles, without additional, costly refinement.
It’s not a new quest, but the modest successes thus far have been confined to basic research labs, many steps from practical applications. The techniques also sometimes have required rare, expensive materials that would make any ultimate commercial scale-up impractical. But advances in nanotechnology, a field in which the Berkeley lab excels, make the development of artificial photosynthesis far more realistic.
Photosynthesis “happens on the nano scale,” said Paul Alivisatos, director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. “There’s really a new environment with all the nanotechnology that’s been developed.”
With nanotechnology, scientists can create “nanowires” that are one-1,000th the size of a human hair, along with elements like nanocrystals. These tiny machine parts are designed to replicate photosynthesis on a scale closer to what happens inside a leaf.
Can human ingenuity finally master this complex process?
“Oh yes, totally. This is doable,” Alivisatos said. “The problems that we face are really specific technical ones that can be worked out.”
The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis is one of three “Energy Innovation Hubs” funded by the Department of Energy to develop breakthrough technologies in energy production and efficiency. In May, the Energy Department announced the selection of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee as a hub for developing breakthroughs in nuclear power. A third hub, which hasn’t been selected, will work on innovations in energy-efficient buildings.
The five-year artificial photosynthesis project will get $22 million in funding this fiscal year, and $25 million per year for the remaining four years, subject to Congressional approval.
The artificial photosynthesis hub “has the potential to reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, increase our national security and create jobs in California,” wrote Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said that it would create 100 new jobs, not including construction and other contract jobs. It also engages the work of an estimated 200 scientists statewide. Other universities involved in the artificial photosynthesis hub include SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine and UC San Diego.
That joint effort among researchers around the state is critical to the project’s success, Alivisatos said.
“I think it’s essential really, because it’s a very complex process with many, many parts to it,” he said. “It’s a classic example of a problem that needs to have a team approach to it.”
Suzanne Bohan covers science. Contact her at 510-262-2789. Follow her at Twitter.com/suzbohan.