Converting solar energy into liquid fuel

October 6, 2008 11:15:20 PM PDT
One group of scientists at the Helios Project hopes to someday capture the power of the sun, and put it in your car.

The sun's energy is essential to everything we know. We already harness energy from its rays, but inside a U.C. Berkeley lab, chemistry professor Paul Alivisatos hopes to convert solar energy into liquid fuel.

"What we'd like to do in any case is to store the energy in such a way that we could use it later," says Alivisatos, the deputy director of the Helios Solar Energy Research Center at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Data collected from around the world, shows it's possible to make fuel out of sunlight, but currently it's not affordable to manufacture on the scale needed to meet the demand. Researchers at the lab are turning to nature's most efficient processors of sunlight to find a way.

"The goal of the project is to emulate what plants do, but to do it with artificial materials that could be much more efficient and in that way we could use much less land then the biofuels do. And hopefully they will also be very stable materials," says Alivisatos.

In the lab they are focused on photosynthesis -- the process plants use to turn sunlight into chemical energy. Researchers are examining how photosynthesis works on the cellular level. The goal now is to create artificial photosynthesis.

"We have to balance out the absorption of the light with the chemical events that take place to make the synthesis. All of those things have to happen in a coordinated way," says Alivisatos.

The key to creating a new fuel may be through the use of emerging nanotechnology, which makes research and engineering possible on a molecular level. That means scientists can look at things like photosynthesis in greater depth than ever before.

"We're going to see a series of waves of developments. It's not just we have one set of technologies and all we need to do is implement them today," says Alivisatos.

New scientific breakthroughs are giving researchers tools to create a sun reliant energy source, but it's the next generation of scientists that will drive the search for answers.

"We have today a generation of students and young scientists who are motivated to work on this problem, as I have never seen," says Alivisatos.

"I have dispersed some nano-crystals right in the very center of this chip," says Matt Sheldon, a graduate student.

It may take another 20 years for that next generation to find the answer, but for the global warming generation, there is no choice but to continue the search.

"I really do feel personally, from my generation, and the future of the planet, we really do have to figure out this energy independence issue," says Sheldon.

"The more we understand the fundamentals of these materials, the better chance we have of actually finding a solution," says Noelle Kamp, a graduate student.

"Certainly if we were successful in making artificial photosynthesis work, we could then set our sites on even other things because in nature many other molecules are made by biological systems," says Alivisatos.

So, even if they don't find a fuel for your car, the lab's research will likely lead to more efficient sources of solar energy and further our understanding of photosynthesis.

We'll show you the Bay Area's unique role in developing alternative and renewable energy solutions tomorrow in a special called Energy Innovation. This will air on ABC7 at 10 p.m. Tuesday night, but here on will have this up at 6 p.m. Pacific Time.

Berkeley FIRST (Financing Initiative for Renewable and Solar Technology): click here

Helios Solar Energy Research Center: click here

This report was written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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