The US Department of Energy will invest up to $366 million to establish and operate three new Energy Innovation Hubs focused on accelerating research and development in three key energy areas, one of which is developing an effective solar energy to chemical fuel conversion system—i.e., “Fuels from Sunlight”. Each Hub, to be funded at up to $122 million over five years, will bring together a multidisciplinary team of researchers in an effort to speed research and shorten the path from scientific discovery to technological development and commercial deployment of highly promising energy-related technologies.
The objective of the Fuels from Sunlight Hub is to accelerate the development of a sustainable commercial process for the production of solar fuels, likely using mechanisms based on photosynthesis.
|“The ultimate transport solution would be solar fuels, made from using sunlight to split water and produce hydrogen, or to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and combine it with water to produce other clean solar fuels...The opportunities for bio-inspired fuels and for innovative routes to produce them are virtually limitless.”|
—BESAC report “New Science for a Secure and Sustainable Energy Future”
Basic research has already provided enormous advances in the understanding of the subtle and complex photochemistry associated with the natural photosynthetic system. Similar advances have occurred using inorganic photo-catalytic methods to split water or reduce carbon dioxide. However, the DOE notes, there is insufficient knowledge to design solar fuel generation systems with the required efficiency and sustainability for economic viability.
The Fuels from Sunlight Hub is tasked with developing a solar fuels system that can operate at an overall efficiency and produce fuel of sufficient energy content to enable transition from bench-top discovery to proof-of-concept prototyping. Critical issues for the Fuels from Sunlight Hub include:
Understanding and designing catalytic complexes or solids that generate chemical fuel from carbon dioxide and/or water. This research would necessarily be coordinated with complementary efforts to comprehend and design other essential elements required for the overall conversion of solar energy into chemical fuels. These include solar photon capture, energy transfer, charge separation and electron transport. A fundamental concern is the design and discovery of materials that will be cost-effective and sustainable in the future economy.
Integration of all essential elements from light capture to fuel formation into an effective solar fuel generation system. This would require research and methodology that seek to understand complex issues of the system as an operating unit. Unlike natural photosynthesis, successful systems within the scope of this project should function efficiently at full solar flux; hence, the efficacy of system components should be evaluated in consideration of such a demanding environment.
Pragmatic evaluation of the solar fuel system under development. While a robust solar fuels industry does not presently exist for deployment of resulting technologies, the Hub should have the capacity to determine the practicality of a solar fuel system as a prototype and as a potential product in the marketplace.
The other two Energy Innovation Hubs will focus on improving energy-efficient building systems design; and computer modeling and simulation for the development of advanced nuclear reactors.
The Energy Innovation Hubs are an element in a broad-based clean energy research strategy by DOE that includes three new initiatives designed to complement each other:
The Energy Frontier Research Centers launched by the Department’s Office of Science to support multi-year, multi-investigator scientific collaborations focused on overcoming hurdles in basic science that block transformational discoveries.
The recently-formed Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which uses a highly entrepreneurial funding model to explore high-risk, high-reward potentially transformative technologies that are too risky for industry to fund.
Energy Innovation Hubs, will establish larger, highly integrated teams ideally working under one roof, conducting high-risk, high-reward research and working to solve priority technology challenges that span work from basic research to engineering development to commercialization readiness.
The Department will provide $22 million in the first year for the establishment of each Hub and up to $25 million per year for the following four years to support the operations of each Hub—for a total award of up to $122 million per Hub.
A Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) inviting proposals for the Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub has been issued (DE-FOA-0000214). The deadline for proposals for the Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub is March 29, 2010. Funding opportunity announcements for the other two Energy Innovation Hubs are expected to be issued early next year. The Energy Efficient Building Systems Design Hub will also be the central component of a regional innovation cluster funding opportunity which will include coordinated grant opportunities from other agencies.
Universities, national laboratories, nonprofit organizations, and private firms are eligible to compete for an award to establish and operate a Hub and are encouraged to form partnerships. Awards, based on evaluation by scientific peer review, will be announced next summer. The Hubs are expected to begin work in 2010 and will be fully operational by 2011.
New Science for a Secure and Sustainable Energy Future (Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) report, December 2008)
Basic Research Needs for Solar Energy Utilization (September 2005)
Basic Research Needs: Catalysis for Energy (Report from DOE Office of Basic Energy Sciences Workshop August 2007)
Directing Matter and Energy: Five Challenges for Science and the Imagination (DOE Grand Science Challenges Report, December 2007)