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Artificial Photosynthesis Effort Takes Root

A $122 million innovation hub could speed the development of devices for making fuel from water and sunlight.
October 22, 2012

While a debate rages about the government’s role in funding energy innovation, sparked by high-profile failures of government-backed companies such as Solyndra and A123 Systems, a less controversial federal clean-tech investment strategy has been quietly humming along, garnering bipartisan support. So-called innovation hubs, multidisciplinary research centers meant to emulate the legendary Bell Laboratories by combining scientific research with applied technology, have managed to get continued government funding even as Congress works to cut the overall federal budget.

Artificial leaf: This prototype from the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis Innovation Hub uses energy from sunlight to isolate hydrogen from water.

Two years after first getting funding, one of the current hubs—a Caltech-based effort focused on using sunlight to make liquid fuels—says it has made substantial progress toward devices that convert sunlight and water into hydrogen and oxygen that could be used to power a car or generate electricity on demand. Eventually, the researchers hope to combine the hydrogen with carbon from carbon dioxide to make liquid fuels similar to gasoline or diesel.

Researchers have been pursuing what’s known as artificial photosynthesis for decades. Progress has been slow, and making the process economical on a large scale remains a seemingly distant goal. The new innovation hub, which is meant to receive $122 million over five years, plans to hurry this research along by bringing together a large number of experts in different areas, including catalysis, optics, and membrane technology.

To speed up materials discovery, researchers at the Caltech hub, who collaborate with researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and more than 20 other research centers, have developed an ink-jet printing process that can churn out millions of slightly different variations on promising catalysts. Each sample is as small as a pixel on a screen. They’re also developing equipment that can quickly test the activity of each catalyst. “It will dramatically accelerate the rate of electrocatalyst and photocatalyst discovery from a few candidates a year to a few every few milliseconds, producing thousands to millions per day,” says Nate Lewis, hub director at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis.

At the same time, the hub has installed advanced 3-D printers that can make prototype devices to house the light-absorbing materials and catalysts, feed water to them, and separate and collect hydrogen and oxygen. So far, researchers have built two such prototypes that can produce fuel from sunlight—though not yet economically. The plan is to have at least four or five different versions of the devices, each with different strengths and weaknesses. The researchers want multiple versions because they can’t predict where the next materials advance will be.

The idea of developing new energy technologies at innovation hubs is far different from the approach of helping companies scale up manufacturing through grants or loan guarantees, as the U.S. Department of Energy did in the case of A123 and Solyndra. It is also far different from funding research projects in the ARPA-E program, whose goal is to take a specific advance in a lab or a company, such as the discovery of a promising new material, and demonstrate its potential within three years—for example, by building a working battery using that material.

The innovation hubs pull together researchers from many different groups to focus on making breakthroughs on long-standing problems. They work on many different levels, doing everything from discovering new materials and carefully studying how they work to designing and building devices that could use those materials. While ARPA-E grants individual projects a few million dollars, each hub is meant to receive more than a hundred million dollars over five years in recognition of the larger scale of the problems they address.

So far, five innovation hubs have been funded, but funding for their five-year term isn’t guaranteed. The money has to be allocated every year, and the budget for next year hasn’t been passed. Though the relevant House and Senate committees support continued funding for all five, Congress is facing increasing pressure to find places to cut spending. 

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