A worldwide competition is under way to develop technology that will revolutionize the way we power everything. from our laptops to our cars, and the United States, at the moment, has a substantiive lead.
The goal is to produce fuels -- hydrogen, methane, maybe gasoline -- by vastly improving on the photosynthesis that provides the fuel for plants and algae and all sorts of living things to grow.
The end goal: Turning ordinary water into fuel by beating nature at its own game. To do that you need sunlight, water and various catalysts to produce different kinds of fuel. The catalysts will likely be unlike anything seen today.
"This isn't pie in the sky," said chemist Nathan Lewis of the California Institute of Technology, director of this country's ambitious effort to be the first to achieve that on a large scale. "We can do it."
A consortium of several California research institutions beat out 19 teams across the country to win the chance to do something no one has been able to do before. The resulting Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis includes the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the Stanford National Accelerator Laboratory, and University of California campuses at Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Irvine and San Diego.
Congress awarded $22 million last September to start the project, but future funding is not certain.
If Lewis is right, the nation, and ultimately the world, will at last be able to free itself from the finite limitations of fossil fuels. That calls for a mini-Manhattan project, a no-holds-barred commitment to keep the United States at the forefront of the development of new and inexhaustible energy resources.
The embryonic program is expected to cost up to $122 million over the next five years, and it will eventually require the full-time commitment of up to 200 top scientists and engineers. Work is already underway on two buildings, one at Caltech and the other at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, where the research will be conducted. It has the full support of President Obama, who highlighted it during his State of the Union address.
The technology may be just around the corner, but there are already talks in Congress of cutting the budget.
"If the cuts being proposed come through it would be devastating and we would have started the race with a lead and then blown a tire," Lewis said in a telephone interview.
The U.S. may be in the lead, but others are not far behind. Japan recently announced a major effort to catch, if not surpass, this country and similar plans are emerging elsewhere in Asia and Europe. An enormous amount of research has to be done to bring this to fruition, but success at times seems tantalizingly close.
The basic goal of producing fuel from water and solar radiation can already be done, splitting the water into hydrogen, which can be used as fuel, and oxygen, which can be released into the atmosphere. But it's not now possible to achieve that on the scale necessary to meet national goals.
"We can already do it at efficiencies that are more than 10 times higher than the fastest growing plant," Lewis said. But that's not enough. To be successful, scientists will have to produce artificial photosynthesis that is far more efficient than that, and it has to be robust, and it has to be cheap.