The Department of Energy has awarded a $122 million grant to a team of researchers based out of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to develop an efficient process for creating liquid fuel from sunlight. The process would essentially create artificial photosynthesis, but instead of converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar like plants do, researchers will create oxygen and hydrocarbons—the essential component of fuel used in combustion engines.
The potential applications of sunlight-to-fuel technology include carbon capture techniques that could allow factories and power plants to convert their carbon emissions into combustible fuel and oxygen on-site. Of course, implementation of any such method is anything but certain and years—if not decades—down the road.
Artificial photosynthesis is not a new idea, though issues of cost, scaling and efficiency have plagued the technology and prevented any serious attempts to move it out of the laboratory. The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis hopes to tackle these problems by using cobalt oxide nanocrystals as a catalyst in the photooxidation process. The nanocrystals are smaller and faster than other materials that have been used in artificial photosynthesis research, allowing for a much more efficient absorption of photons. Cobalt oxide is also cheap and abundant, whereas some of the other catalysts that have been experimented on are among the rarest and most expensive metals on earth.
Another challenge the team hopes to overcome is eliminating the intermediary processes that drive up costs and prevent viability. The JCAP will attempt to directly create a liquid fuel that doesn’t need to be refined any further. In the past, researchers have been able to use solar energy to produce methane and other other gases that would then need to be liquified and refined in order to be used as fuel. Those processes greatly multiply the cost of production.
The JCAP will be led by researchers from Cal Tech, and is one of three Energy Innovation Hubs that DOE secretary Steven Chu will create for advanced energy research. A nuclear research hub was announced in May, and the department plans to announce one more in the coming months.