SLAC Today logo

SLAC to Join New DOE Research Hub for Artificial Photosynthesis

This morning, the Department of Energy announced the creation of a new Energy Innovation Hub aimed at finding a practical way of making fuels with an artificial version of photosynthesis. Led by the California Institute of Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the new Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis will include work at SLAC, Stanford, and University of California campuses in Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Irvine and San Diego.

Scientists have been looking for years for a way to mimic the way plants generate energy from the sun, a process that is the basis for nearly all life on Earth.

"This is something you can't do today," said SLAC's Anders Nilsson. "You can demonstrate it in principle, but it doesn't really work for practical use. The idea is that the hub will conduct research to see if this can be developed. If this could work, it would have a huge impact that will change our society."

Nilsson is one of four SLAC/Stanford scientists who will participate in the multidisciplinary center, which is one of three DOE Energy Innovation Hubs scheduled for funding in FY 2010. The other researchers are Jens Nørskov, who arrived at SLAC/Stanford in June to direct CISC, the new Center for Interface Science and Catalysis; theoretical chemist Todd Martinez of SLAC's PULSE Institute for Ultrafast Energy Science; and Thomas Jaramillo of the Stanford chemical engineering department.

Nørskov and Jaramillo are also principal investigators with Stanford's Center on Nanostructuring for Efficient Energy Conversion. It's also funded by the DOE, and Nørskov said it will work synergistically with researchers at the new hub.

Nilsson, who is known for his studies of the structure of water and the chemical bonds at the surfaces of materials, will use X-ray beams from SLAC's Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource—and, perhaps later, from the Linac Coherent Light Source—to investigate materials that might catalyze the chemical reactions needed to turn sunlight and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into fuel. He'll also serve as a bridge between work at SSRL and at CISC, where he is deputy director.

Meanwhile, CISC will use theoretical and computational methods to understand catalytic processes and to design possible new catalysts for artificial photosynthesis.

Nørskov said there are two main challenges in developing an artificial version of what comes so naturally to plants.

"You need to first absorb light. That's a challenge in its own right," he said. "But then you need catalysts"—materials that speed up chemical reactions without being consumed themselves—"that will transform energy from sunlight into energy stored in chemical bonds." While plants store that chemical energy in sugars within their cells, the goal of this research is to create a prototype system that stores the chemical energy in more practical fuels, such as gasoline for cars or hydrogen for fuel cells.

There are already a few candidate materials for absorbing light, Nørskov said, but none, yet, for efficiently catalyzing the conversion of carbon dioxide to fuels. And integrating light absorption and catalysts into a device will be another enormous challenge.

Further details are available in the DOE press release and fact sheet.

—Glennda Chui
SLAC Today, July 22, 2010