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.
Mini-Manhattan Project Needed for U.S. to Lead Renewable Energy
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.
Budget Cuts Would Be 'Devastating' to Research
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.
Scientists Need to Create New Catalysts
"Right now, I can give you any two of those three at the same time, but not the third," Lewis said.
It can be done using platinum as a catalyst, but platinum is a very rare and expensive metal, so a system depending on platinum would be anything but cheap. It can also be done using pigment from white paint. That's cheap, but leave white paint in the sunlight for awhile and it doesn't stay white for long.
Scientists will need to create new catalysts from materials that are abundant throughout the earth. And they will need to build, analyze and test millions of them.
That, it would seem, could take decades.
"For now, if you have an idea for a new material you hire some associates and go into the lab and in three weeks you might make a compound, and in three more months you might figure out what it is and how it behaves, and then you have to decide if its promising, or not. That could take six months," Lewis said.
Scientists Hope for First Solar Fuel Generator in Two Years
"We're going to launch the world's highest throughput discovery capability," he added, "Instead of six months, we're going to mix 1 million compounds and quantify their activity every single day. There's nothing else like that in the world. What would have taken six months is going to take six milliseconds."
That sounds impossible, but actually much of the technology is already known. An ink-jet printer, for example, could spit out row after row of tiny dots, each with slightly different composition, and it could produce millions in short order. Those dots would have to be analyzed and tested, but that's not unlike the way a plasma television screen produces an image.
"We can do that with the same electronics that is used to address every pixel in your plasma TV," Lewis said. "It addresses each pixel by row and column, and there are 4 million pixels in everybody's plasma now" and the electronics measures every color and every characteristic of every pixel 30 times a second.
"We only have to do it once for that particular panel to get all the data we need," he added. So it's not as far fetched as it sounds.
Lewis and his colleagues expect to explore, document and catalogue more catalysts for fuel production in a day than have been discovered throughout human history. They hope to have the first solar fuel generator in about two years, but it probably won't work. Maybe five or six generations later, say by year four, they should have a working prototype.
Failure along the line is fine, Lewis said, as long as each generation gets a little better.
Of course, it's not going to be all that simple, either. There will be surprises along the way, and there's always the danger that funding will be cut, but Lewis is confident that victory can be achieved.
"We're going to make it work," he said.