The sun’s energy powers just about everything. Sometimes it does so more directly, as in the conversion of radiant energy to electricity in photovoltaic panels, and others less directly, in the case of plant material that has morphed in petroleum and natural gas found in the earth’s crust. In addition, the sun causes the wind to blow, rain to fall, and photosynthesis to occur. It is this latter process that may hold the key to providing a nearly limitless, renewable fuel source for future devices.
Currently photovoltaic cells, radiant heating, and passive solar are the most widely used solar technologies. No viable large scale method has been developed to use photosynthesis in order to generate fuel. Some bio-fuels, such as algae, may provide some options in the search for a renewable alternative to crude oil.
The United States Department of Energy has dedicated $122 million over the next five years to “The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), to be led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).” The goal of the “multidisciplinary team of top scientists [will be] to establish an Energy Innovation Hub aimed at developing revolutionary methods to generate fuels directly from sunlight. ” Also known as Solar Fuels Hub, the consortium “will bring together leading researchers in an ambitious effort aimed at simulating nature’s photosynthetic apparatus for practical energy production. The goal of the Hub is to develop an integrated solar energy-to-chemical fuel conversion system and move this system from the bench-top discovery phase to a scale where it can be commercialized.”
Compared to the total U.S. budget, which topped $3.8 trillion, the $122 million is a drop in the proverbial bucket. However, by funding the development of renewable energy supplies from solar power, the government is making a move toward an energy independent, sustainable future.