In yet another move to blow off the US fossil fuel industry, the Obama Administration has just announced $75 million in new funding to pursue artificial photosynthesis. Doesn’t that sound like one of those silly research projects that certain people were laughing about during the last election cycle? Well, he who laughs last, laughs best. The money will go to continue the work of JCAP, the Energy Department’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, which has been busily figuring out ways to make liquid fuel from sunlight and carbon dioxide.
This is just the latest in a series of three renewable energy announcements from the Obama Administration so far this week, so we’re thinking that somebody must be sending
#keystoneistoast a message to somebody.
Ready Or Not, Here Comes Artificial Photosynthesis
JCAP was established in 2010 as one of the Energy Department’s new Energy Innovation Hubs, headed up by our friends over at the California Institute of Technology (home of the “toilet of the future“) with a five-year, $122 million mission to make fuel from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide.
If you’re familiar with the “artificial leaf” concept (here and here are a couple more examples), then you know this is not a pipe dream. The new $75 million in funding will go to keep JCAP chugging along for another five years.
The Death Of Biofuels
While fossil fuels are clearly in JCAP’s crosshairs for the here and now, JCAP also foresees a sparkling green future in which biofuels can’t compete, either:
JCAP’s mission is to develop a manufacturable solar-fuels generator, made of Earth-abundant elements, that will use only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide as inputs, and will robustly produce fuel from the sun ten times more efficiently than current crops.
Aside from environmental benefits, the Obama Administration has been zeroing in on a more secure, reliable energy future that pivots on local and hyper-local sourcing made possible by renewable energy (check out the Defense Department’s many renewable energy initiatives for more on that). Biofuels do fit the profile, but artificial photosynthesis fits it even better.
All Roads Lead To Artificial Photosynthesis
To be fair, JCAP is not the only artificial photosynthesis game in town. Research is going on all over the country. The idea behind JCAP is to pull together the nation’s brainpower, including 20 Energy Frontier Research Centers established by the Energy Department, to speed up the progress from labwork to a private sector, commercial contract.
To cite just one example, JCAP states that its scientists can “discover, evaluate, and develop more catalysts each day than have been developed in human history.”
What Is Artificial Photosynthesis, Anyways?
Energy storage is a hot topic these days, and the artificial photosynthesis work underscores just how hot it is.
In one hour, the sun rams so much energy down to Earth that we could run everything 24/7 for an entire year, but most of it slips through our fingers like butter.
We’ve started to catch some of it with solar devices, and that energy can be stored in batteries. So, think of liquid fuel as a type of energy storage and you’re on to something. Once you’ve converted sunlight to fuel, you can store it, transport it, and convert it into other fuels and products.
Here’s how JCAP describes the artificial photosynthesis process:
An upper membrane would absorb light, CO 2 , and water and would allow oxygen to escape. Customized molecules embedded in an inner membrane would catalyze reactions that produce the desired fuel. And the base layer would wick fuel away, directing it to collectors.
Let’s Hear It For The Sustainable FCEV Of The Future
Over here at CleanTechnica, we’ve been having a series of lively discussions about fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), and while we’re all coming at it from different angles, the common denominator is the hydrogen to run the fuel cells.
The problem with hydrogen is that, currently, almost all hydrogen is sourced from fossil natural gas. Battery EVs also run on fossil-sourced fuel when they charge up from a fossil-powered grid, but that still doesn’t let FCEVs off the hook.
However, sustainable hydrogen solutions are emerging, and JCAP is one of the research centers looking for workarounds.
Specifically, JCAP is aiming for hydrogen and methanol, along with other specialty fuels for aircraft and vehicles.
As for the notorious Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, President Obama is not particularly a fan of the project, which has suffered one delay after another.
In the latest development, the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission agreed to delay a key hearing, in order to give opponents more time to gather their artillery.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is steaming full speed ahead with renewable energy projects.
The agency also released the first ever nationwide report on the hydropower market, while drawing a roadmap for tapping into more than 77 gigawatts of hydropower potential in the US.
What rhymes with bucket list?
Image Credits (screenshots): Courtesy of JCAP.