DOE Launches $122M Energy Innovation Hub to Focus on Solar Fuels: “Fuels from Sunlight”
28 December 2009
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)
"...too risky for industry to fund."
Apparently CDOs and CDSs were not "too risky for industry to fund." This is the nature of finance, the nation needs synthetic fuels, but Brazilian T Bonds have a higher yield.
Posted by: SJC | 28 December 2009 at 08:52 AM
So they want to spend millions of dollars on something that only works 12 hours per day and less well in the winter? I don't get the necessity of the direct sunlight to fuel linkage.
Posted by: Jim | 28 December 2009 at 10:43 AM
You could make enough H2 during the day to process CO2 into methane and methanol 24/7, you just store it and use it. Biomass is a form of solar, you just use the excess CO from that. You can O2 blow the gasification of the biomass from the O2 made from concentrated SOFC PV electrolysis.
Posted by: SJC | 28 December 2009 at 11:05 AM
I like the sound of this project. Although it is a bit circuitous. There are several ideas about generating H2/O from PV powered low energy electrolysis that should be followed up. At least there is some funding here for exploring those systems further.
And IF they prove viable - they don't have to use PV/solar as the sole energy source - it can be stored energy from a variety of sources. At least DOE recognizes the importance of exploring these higher risk areas of research/development.
Posted by: sulleny | 28 December 2009 at 01:05 PM
Posted by: Engineer-Poet | 28 December 2009 at 04:04 PM
That does look good. It occurred to me that methane just comes out and does not have to be synthesized. It does not remain to slow the reaction like ethanol does in fermentation.
Posted by: SJC | 28 December 2009 at 08:17 PM
The inherent problem with direct solar to chemical fuel is the low conversion efficiency, necessitating very expansive (large) collecting arrays with tubings for transport raw substrate (CO2 and H2O) to each individual cells, and to take back the product (fuel) via miles and miles of fine tubings to the collector. If the fuel is a gas, then storage and transportation of this gas would incur significant cost. Desert areas suitable for these solar energy projects are very far away from the coastal population centers.
By contrast, solar to electricity is already proven, with reasonable efficiency. Electricity is much easier to transmit, even thru thousands-of-mile distances via HVDC lines. For distances longer than practical with HVDC lines, then the electricity produced can be used to produce H2, which will then be transported via dedicated H2 pipelines (yet to be built) or the H2 can be converted to methane to be transported via existing NG pipelines.
Posted by: Roger Pham | 28 December 2009 at 08:22 PM
Roger, are there any NG pipelines passing through suitable desert areas?
Posted by: ai_vin | 28 December 2009 at 10:49 PM
Btw, with the $700 billion that was used to save bankers, one could have purchased Oerlikon thinfilm PV factories which produce 373 GW of photovoltaic modules per year:
That is more PV capacity in one single year than the entire coal power plant capacity of the US combined.
120,000 km2 of the US is built. Only 10% of that built area at 15% PV-efficiency lead to 1800 GW. At a capacity factor of only 15% that corresponds to almost 2400 TWh or 60% of the current electricity demand in the US.
In addition, on and off-shore wind is also an option to produce synthetic fuels which there is no shortage of and 99% of a wind farm can still be used for other purposes such as a PV farm:
Posted by: globi | 29 December 2009 at 03:04 AM
"I don't get the necessity of the direct sunlight to fuel linkage."
In order to obviate the decline in conventional oil production that is either already happened or will happen soon, some measures need to be instituted to take it's place, in part rather than in whole.
Sunlight is abundant, free, and will not exhaust for billions of years. Algal biodiesel is one such technology, though others are beginning to emerge.
Posted by: Will S | 29 December 2009 at 07:04 AM
I haven't heard much from these guys lately:
My concern about the direct sunlight connection is that it results in the physical plant (whatever it may be) being unused much of the time. Something with direct electric input could also benefit from wind or nuclear power, which are also currently less expensive than PV.
Any direct solar system will have to provide clean water and CO2 to the light source, and draw the product back. That's a lot of pipes! I don't see the economics working out anytime soon.
Posted by: Jim | 29 December 2009 at 07:11 AM
I could see CO2 pipelines, we do not want to put it into the atmosphere, so we pipe it to old natural gas wells. Lots of those in Oklahoma where biomass is grown. With the biomass and CO2, solar H2 and O2 can be used to make renewable methane to put into the pipelines that supply the nation.
Posted by: SJC | 29 December 2009 at 08:35 AM
Use HVDC lines to transport electricity to more populated areas, then from there, produce H2 or methane to be transported via pipelines.
Posted by: Roger Pham | 29 December 2009 at 02:08 PM