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Clean Power artificial photosynthesis JCAP

Published on April 29th, 2015 | by Tina Casey


President Obama Adds $75 Million Artificial Photosynthesis Project To Rhymes-With-Bucket List

April 29th, 2015 by  

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.

artificial photosynthesis JCAP

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.

artificial photosynthesis jcap 2

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.

Keystone, Schmeystone

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.

In addition to the new $75 million JCAP funding, this week the Energy Department earmarked $2 million for geothermal energy research,

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?

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Image Credits (screenshots): Courtesy of JCAP.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Tim Taylor

    Oil is going back to $10 a barrel. That’s because global demand is in the process of collapsing. That’s because the political criminals in this country and around the world have created a global economy that’s a Ponzi Scheme.

    It’s obvious the author and commenters are not scientists or engineers. There is a little problem with this and it’s called energy density/power density. You aren’t going to be kissing carbon fuels goodbye for a long time. That is, unless demand for energy collapses and capitalism with it. And the future world requires substantially less density that solar and other forms of renewables can compete.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Tim, are you thinking that countries/companies will sell their oil for less than what it costs them to extract it? That’s what it would take to get to $10/barrel.

      Almost no one can sell their oil at a profit for $10/barrel. Until oil demand drops extremely low we are not going to see prices like that. And demand for industrial feedstock may be enough to keep overall demand well above $20/barrel.

      Now, energy density. Have you really thought that through?

      Uranium and coal, for example, are very energy dense but the electricity produced in a new nuclear or coal plant would cost well over 12 cents per kWh. (Plus subsidies and external costs.)

      Wind and solar are not dense energy sources but the cost of electricity – without subsidies – from a new wind farm is running under 4 cents per kWh and from a new solar farm about 6.5 cents per kWh.

      Energy density is only part of the equation. One also has to figure in the cost of fuel (coal costs more than wind and sunshine). And figure in the cost of the infrastructure needed to turn the energy source into electricity (wind costs about $1.60/watt installed, nuclear – the Vogtle reactors – over $8/watt installed).

      Oil is energy dense but internal combustion engines are very inefficient. About 80% of the energy input is lost as waste heat. EVs are about 90% efficient, losing only roughly 10% of the energy stored in their batteries.

    • Ken

      You’re not really being coherent.

  • Dragon

    Keystone XL MAY be toast, but Obama’s state department just secretly approved an expansion of existing pipelines that will carry as much tar sands oil as Keystone.


  • Ken

    Several things that need to be mentioned that weren’t.

    Yes, fuel cells get 95% of their energy from dirty natural gas which comes mostly from the environmentally devastating practice of fracking which means fuel cells are not green in any way.

    The point left out is that this dirty fuel will never become clean in any relevant time frame. it will stay dirty because any renewable method of getting H2 is completely impractical. It costs 4 to 5 times as much as sourcing from dirty fracked natural gas.

    Toyota and the other car companies are lying about this tech, claiming it is green when it is actually extremely dirty.

    The other point is that, even on fossil fuel electricity sources, EVs are still significantly cleaner. This needed to be pointed out but wasn’t for some reason.

    On the current US grid, the Tesla puts out 4 times less CO2 than a gas car.

    Green renewables are the fastest growing source of electricity and as the grid gets cleaner, EVs become even cleaner than they already are. That is one of the main points of the tech.

    Meanwhile the dirty fracking fuel cell stays just as dirty. A clean grid makes no difference.

    There is no comparison to the greenness of these techs and the author should not be pretending they are, in any way, similar.

    • Michael G

      It is incredible how completely and utterly you miss the entire point of this article. It is a way to get H2 in a clean way. You cannot possibly have any idea what this will cost because it hasn’t been brought to market yet. It is in the research stage. You make assertions about the use of electricity to produce H2 when there is no use of electricity at all in the process in question. Does a tree leaf need electricity from the grid or batteries for photosynthesis?

      Did you even read the article?

      • Ken

        It is incredible how completely and utterly you miss the basic facts.

        Here are the facts:

        It is not economically feasible to get clean H2 in the foreseeable future – meaning in a time period that will have any effect on our global warming crisis.

        If you would have done any research, you would know that a natural gas reforming system for hydrogen – which mostly comes from the environmentally devastating practice of frack – costs about $2 million.

        Meanwhile a renewable sourced system will cost, at least, $8 million.
        It is not practical. It is not competitive. And therefore it will not be happening.

        Virtually every credible engineer and scientist say that economically feasible renewable H2 will not be possible here in the foreseeable future.

        So you were wrong – again. I have a very good idea what these things cost.

        With our global warming crisis, it is environmental suicide to bring a dirty fracking fuel cell car tech to market.

        Nobody would buy a dirty fracking fuel cell car with only the vague promise that someday it won’t be devastating to the environment which is why Toyota and the other companies are lying about the tech.

        Also, if you had read carefully, you would see I said nothing about using electricity to generate H2.

        Next time, try doing some actual research and try to read more carefully before making accusations.

        • Michael G

          This article is about getting H2 using photosynthesis. Why you bring in other methods of getting H2 is beyond me unless you saw FC and did some knee-jerk cut-and-paste *without actually reading the article*.

          Maybe you’re embarrassed that you brought in fracking when this is about photosynthesis and now feel you have to double down? The thrust of the research cited here is that there are other methods than you cite of getting H2 – making your argument massively irrelevant.

          • Ken

            It would seem that most things are beyond you.

            You are probably embarrassed that I proved you would fail a 4th grade test in reading comprehension when you claimed I wrote something that I didn’t. You need to apologize for that incompetence.

            Whenever some extreme distant future possibility of getting sustainable H2 is mentioned without the proper context of the actual true possible timeframe, it is important to correct.

            Sustainable H2 production will not be economically feasible in any time to help with the current global warming crisis – exactly as I said.

            This makes the dirty fracking fuel cell car a useless tech that is not green in any way – nor will it be green in any foreseeable future – exactly as I said.

            This is all extremely relevant because Toyota and others are, at this moment, promoting this tech on lies.

            I just proved you argument massively incompetent – just like your reading skills.

            Good job! LOL!

          • Michael G

            Well at least you mentioned – however obliquely – the actual topic of the article here, (H2 from photosynthesis, in case you forget again) so… progress, I guess.

            But still, slamming basic research you know nothing about as if you could foretell the future, and bringing in fracking (yet again!) when it is *completely* irrelevant to this article – take a break and do something useful with your time.

            FCs from hydrolysis are saving Walmart over $million at their Canadian warehouse in large-scale 24/7 material handling. If one of the cheapest cos. in the world finds H2 from hydrolysis cost-effective maybe you need to pause and reconsider. Maybe do some research on the web into FCs and why they are getting so much support in the EU and Japan.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Wonder how much more Walmart will be saving once they move to battery powered forklifts and charge them from the solar panels on their roofs?

          • Ken

            I forgot nothing but you don’t seem to have the mental capacity to comprehend that. You keep proving that your reading skills are below a 4th grader. Let’s explore your extreme incompetence:

            I specifically responded to this part of the article since you clearly forgot – again:

            “The problem with hydrogen is that, currently, almost all hydrogen is sourced from fossil natural gas.
            However, sustainable hydrogen solutions are emerging”

            I correctly pointed out that no solutions will emerge that will make a fuel cell car in any way green here in the foreseeable future.

            That is extremely relevant to the article. You are completely wrong to say it isn’t.

            So, did you not comprehend the information or was it that you did not read carefully or was it that you forgot?

            Whatever your choice, I just proved you would fail a 4th grade test in reading comprehension – again.

            And you just failed the same 4th grade test with your latest post.

            I wrote: “And therefore it will not be happening in any significant amounts.”

            A single Wallmart store in Canada is not a significant amount – exactly as I said so I just proved you wrong – again.
            And I just proved you would fail a 4th grade test in reading comprehension – again.

            The system you are describing is more expensive than sourcing H2 from natural gas and there is no technology or plans to scale it up for fuel cell cars here in the foreseeable future – exactly as I said.

            I just proved you wrong – again. I just proved it is you that knows nothing about this tech.

            Maybe get someone to read and explain these things to you before posting and demonstrating your extreme incompetence and ignorance again and again.

          • Michael G

            “I correctly pointed out that no solutions will emerge that will make a fuel cell car in any way green here in the foreseeable future.”

            This entire article is about advances that refute everything you claim. You proved nothing, you cited no sources, you apparently have no expertise in this field you feel like mentioning, and you apparently expect people to take your statements as gospel based on absolutely nothing at all.

            You are really stretching to hid the obvious conclusion it was some Pavlovian reaction to the words “Fuel Cell” since you clearly didn’t read the article before pasting in your canned response. You’re embarrassing yourself. Quit before you make it worse.

            BTW, as I clearly noted it was not some Walmart stores, it was a large 24/7 distribution center. Have someone who can read explain it to you.

            Really, give it up. I am starting to feel sorry for you.

          • Ken

            Now you are lying – in addition to continue to show extreme incompetence.

            You are the one embarrassing yourself and it has been effortless to prove your incompetence, inability to read at a 4th grade level and hilarious ignorance

            I am about to do it all again. It’s fun and easy. LOL!

            Let’s first explore your lies:

            You wrote: “This entire article is about advances that refute everything you claim.”

            That is you pathetically trying to lie.

            I wrote: (prices for clean fuel cell sourcing) “are not competitive. And therefore it will not be happening in any significant amounts.”

            You have completely failed to prove clean fuel cell sourcing is happening in significant amounts. Your example shows the exact opposite.

            You have also completely failed to show a single fact I posted as untrue – because you can’t. LOL!

            I’m sure you hear the words “you have completely failed” many times a day. LOL!

            Anyway, I just proved you lied.

            Now to cite some sources proving you incompetent and ignorant and implying my facts are not true was a total lie.

            From The US Gov Energy site: Today, 95% of the hydrogen produced in the United States is made by natural gas reforming in large central plants.

            Natural gas is a dirty fossil fuel that comes mostly from fracking.

            I just proved that clean fuel cells are not happening in any significant amounts – exactly as I said.

            I just proved you incompetent and ignorant.

            I also just proved you lied – again.

            Now let’s explore your below 4th grade reading levels and laughably incompetent research skills.

            You wrote: BTW, as I clearly noted it was not some Walmart stores, it was a large 24/7 distribution center.

            The actual truth from :”The fuel cell technology has also been installed at two other Walmart distribution centers.”

            I just proved you are completely wrong and a shining example of rampant incompetence – again. LOL!

            I was already aware of this proving i am quite knowledgeable about this tech while you have only proved ignorance and incompetence – again.

            Next more proof that you are lying with more sources:

            From Motley: “Fuel cell systems like the one used by Walmart were more expensive to operate than natural gas. Since the time of that analysis, the price of natural gas has declined by 18.6%, making the Ballard and Fuel Cell Energy sales pitch to potential customers all that much harder.”

            I wrote: (prices for clean fuel cell sourcing) “are not competitive. And the above source proves I am exactly right – again.

            Meanwhile, I have proved you wrong – again.

            I have proved you lied.

            I have proved you are ignorant about the tech.

            I have proved you have incompetent research skills.

            I could go on and on but I’ll summarize to make it simple for you: You failed again and lost again.

            You should apologize for lying and for being wrong about everything. But you don’t seem to have the morality for that.

            As I said, you desperately need a 4th grader to read things to you and also to teach you how to properly look things up.

            But I doubt they’d have the patience with someone of your low level of comprehension. LOL!

  • JamesWimberley

    “President Obama is not particularly a fan of the project, which has suffered one delay after another.” The delays are the policy. Obama and Kerry are betting that the promoters will eventually get the message and give up. Its economics are now a mess with the fall in the oil price.

  • sjc_1

    The Pentagon spends $75 million per DAY on weapons programs to keep oil flowing from the middle east.

    • Keanwood

      But the weapons they build are so cool compared to renewable energy projects.

      • sjc_1

        Nothing jazzy about solar fuel versus a drone.

        • Coley

          I’m just on here waiting for the news about solar powered hover boards becoming available;)

    • Jason hm

      If you haven’t noticed things are shifting. These are the twilight years for OIL and no other resource will hamstring the world like Oil did. The conflicts of tomorrow are going to be the old fashion kind, fighting for territory for national pride same old deal war never really changes. China has ambition and a long list of grievances next century going to be interesting hope we survive it.

      • JamesWimberley

        The territorial conflict in the South China Sea is fuelled (sic) by the belief that there are large hydrocarbon resources underneath.

        • Coley

          And hopefully that’s where they will stay!

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