Fuels from sunlight? Energy Department says, 'Make it so'

A California team won an award of up to $122 million to produce fuels from the sun, the U.S. Department of Energy said today.

The key appears simple in concept but Star Trek complex in execution. The mission will be making it commercially viable.

"Finding a cost-effective way to produce fuels as plants do -- combining sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide -- would be a game changer, reducing our dependence on oil and enhancing energy security," said U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, in a statement.

The award is over five years. It went to the California Institute of Technology, which is partnering with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and other California institutions, and will establish the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis.

"With this award, some of California's top scientists will continue to lead the way forward by working together to create 'artificial photosynthesis,' a process that can emulate the inner workings of plant life to produce a useful transportation fuel we can put right into our cars without further processing," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in the DOE statement.

"If successful, this concept -- to combine sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce a clean fuel -- would revolutionize the energy sector. It would help scrub the atmosphere of excessive carbon dioxide, help eliminate our dependence on oil, and generate an innovative industry in the heart of California. This is very exciting."

The operation is one of three that will receive money from DOE this year. The agency announced in May that a team led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory will pursue research on modeling and simulation for nuclear reactors. The final selection has yet to be announced.

DOE officials explained cracking the sunlight-to-fuel process this way: "Research will be directed at the discovery of the functional components necessary to assemble a complete artificial photosynthetic system: light absorbers, catalysts, molecular linkers, and separation membranes. The Hub will then integrate those components into an operational solar fuel system and develop scale-up strategies to move from the laboratory toward commercial viability."

Clear as mud?

The San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization is a nonprofit dedicated to improving our region's quality of life by increasing its production and use of clean and alternative energy. The SJVCEO works with cities and counties and public and private organizations to demonstrate the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy throughout the eight-county region of the San Joaquin Valley.