Artificial Photosynthesis: Fuel from Sunlight at JCAP

April 15, 2014


The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) is the nation’s largest research program dedicated to the development of an artificial solar-fuel generation technology. Established in 2010 as a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Innovation Hub, JCAP aims to find a cost-effective method to produce fuels using only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide as inputs.

JCAP brings together more than 140 top scientists and researchers from the California Institute of Technology and its lead partner, Berkeley Lab, along with collaborators from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and the University of California campuses at Irvine and San Diego.

28 Responses to “Artificial Photosynthesis: Fuel from Sunlight at JCAP”

  1. tildeb Says:

    Awesome approach.

  2. Ed Hodder Says:

    fyi, a release from Stanford within the last week details a breakthrough using sort of this kind of thing. Ethanol from CO2 and water, just using copper instead of sunlight. If I’m reading it right. The thing that gets me about most of the naysayers is how little they understand about how much progress is made in renewables on a daily basis.

    • They’re using carbon monoxide, not carbon dioxide.  CO has a fairly high heat of combustion.  A cheap, long-lived invention which extracted CO2 from the air and made photosynthetic CO would just about solve the fossil fuel problem by itself.

  3. The thumbnail sketch:  they’ve got a bunch of very smart people working on the problem, but they say nothing about even one invention that meets their goals even at the lab scale.

    If and when they get it, it remains to be put into practice.  They’ll have to find some way to manufacture it at mass scale (unlike natural leaves, it’s not part of a self-reproducing system) and roll it out.  Only then will it make a difference to the climate.

    This basket is good, but we need lots of eggs elsewhere.

  4. dumboldguy Says:

    Ho-hum. More bubbles of H2 and O2. They have been talking about this for years and showing us “bubbles”, but when are we going to see some liquid fuel containing carbon/hydrogen molecules comparable to what we refine from fossil fuels? It will be nice to produce hydrogen cheaply, and it will be useful for fixed applications, but we need to go the next step and make stuff that can be pumped into “gas” tanks.

  5. Shane Burgel Says:

    So hydrocarbons from sunlight? Why would we want more hydrocarbon fuels?

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Maybe because we would then be recycling the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere and maintaining a steady state rather than increasing CO2 levels by burning fossil carbon?

      • DOG, And eventually, they’ll re-bury hydrocarbons if they produce more than what is burned.

        I spent two days at JCAP earlier this month. They’re manufacturing and testing about 100,000 various compositions of abundant Earth elements per day. They deposit 2,000 combos on a glass slide using 2 ink jet printers. Then there’s an assembly line screening process. The most promising energy conversion and catalysts are shipped to more specialized testing units within Caltech, and then the most promising of those are shipped to partners who run more specialized tests. It’s a high risk high reward venture. All the partners were meeting (coincidentally) while we were there. They have an admirable sense of urgency.

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          Wow! Sounds a lot like pharmaceutical screening.

          • The technician making the slides wears a face mask for chemical fumes. The fume is ethanol. He told me he prefers his ethanol in beer – after work.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Yeah, they better have a sense of “urgency”, because it sounds like the cost of their “risk” may bury them long before they find any “reward”.

          And speaking of “reburying” CO2, I always get a laugh out of that. I find the idea of selling the CO2 to the oil companies for pressurizing tired oil wells particularly amusing.

          (PS Did you visit JCAP with the idea of investing in a “promising combo”? Let us know if you see something “hot”).

          • I’ve been a donor since it was a tiny “startup” called the Caltech Center for Sustainable Energy Research. Nothing to invest in – yet.

            IMO, buried carbon is going to have to be a solid or a liquid to do much good.

          • Although, there have been a couple of spin-offs that didn’t “float my boat”.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        Or, stripping Carbon from CO2 to produce pure graphene or diamond. We could make a pyramid of the stuff in Giza large enough to act as a space elevator. Kick sand in the face of King Tut with that one. ;>D

    • rayduray Says:

      Re: “Why would we want more hydrocarbon fuels?”

      Energy density. Nothing compares to a tank of gasoline or diesel among all the other transportation fuels in terms of energy density. Alcohols contain only about 2/3s of the BTU per unit of volume. Batteries are a “meh” in the world of energy densities.

      Some of us, myself included, would love to see more public transportation based on electricity from renewable sources. But we are simply not going to replace the traffic jams in L.A., Chicago, Bangkok and Beijing with public transportation anytime soon if ever. Cars are here to stay. And if you want range and dependability at affordable prices for the middle class, you’re going to be producing hydrocarbon fuels into the foreseeable future.

  6. rayduray Says:

    I’d feel a lot better about all this PR handwaving from DOE’s JCAP if they’d show me a gallon or two of the fuel they have produced. Did anyone else notice that there’s a profound lacuna in this presentation? Heck, even the algae-to-oil people can show us something at the end of the movie that resembles diesel. Not so this presentation from JCAP.

  7. redskylite Says:

    If you were watching “Game of Thrones,” you missed Neil Tyson’s solution to global warming

    Plants, after all, are the reigning global masters of clean energy. They use 100-percent solar power: The chloroplast, the so-called “powerhouse” of a plant cell, is a “3-billion-year-old solar energy collector” and a “submicroscopic solar battery,” as Tyson put it. Basically, chloroplasts use sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to store energy in sugars, and give off oxygen as a byproduct. And without this fundamental green energy technology, life on this planet as we know it wouldn’t exist.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      I missed “Neil Tyson’s solution to global warming” not because I was watching “Game of Thrones,” but because of my wife’s addiction to “The Good Wife”.

      All that follows after “Plants are the reigning global masters of clean energy…” is true, and any grade school that doesn’t teach “…without this fundamental green energy technology, life on this planet as we know it wouldn’t exist” should be closed for malpractice.

      The BIG problem is that we haven’t yet figured out how to run cars on sugar or cellulose, or any of the other things plants make so easily. We need to extract and digest and ferment and process and convert until we get something that CAN be put in a “gas tank”, and, unfortunately, we are a long way from success. We have done it with things like ethanol, but all the biofuels have assorted drawbacks and significant carbon footprints themselves, and until we come up with some really elegant technologies, it’s just a dream.

      I will say it again. All these years of talk and videos of bubbles rising in a glass of water from an “artificial leaf” are just PR and meaningles. (Until they show us something “that resembles diesel”, as ray duray put it).


      • Until in production, the bubbles are meaningless. However, to say it’s just PR is too cynical. JCAP is as far along as Texas Instrument’s IC prototype in 1958. The first commercial IC device, with 2 transistors and 12 analog components, was bought by aerospace in 1961 for about $500 each. The military and NASA were about the only IC customers in the 1960’s. A dozen years later we had personal computers. (Woof)

        • dumboldguy Says:

          It’s a bit of a stretch to compare the development of IC’s and personal computers to what we face with “artificial photosynthesis”. That was just a straight forward progression of applied physics, engineering, and development. Just as we did to put a man on the moon.

          We now HAVE IC’s and computers to help us, and some rather advanced understandings of the chemistry and physics involved—-and progress is still going very slowly—-as with fusion (cold or hot). Does our reach exceed our grasp? (And the term “artificial photosynthesis” itself smacks a bit of PR—-once we are able to “synthesize” using sunlight, it will just “be”, nothing “artificial” about it).

          And what’s not to be cynical about at my age? (Growl)

          • I agree that powering the synthesis of fuels with photons (PTSOFWP) may fail to meet the desired performance standards. Between us cynical old guys, I think it’s like fielding five 3 point shooters when down by 7 points with a minute left to play. However, if JCAP meets its 5 year $122M milestones for delivering robust, Earth- abundant light absorbers, catalysts, membranes, linkage and a design for an integrated scaled-up architecture would you support another 5 year grant? (Snarl)

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Hmmmmmm—-in 5 years CO2 levels may reach 415 ppm, much of CA may need to be abandoned, and arctic sea ice may be gone in summer. Why not give JCAP more money? We can’t take it with us, can we? (small woof)

  8. redskylite Says:

    The other serious energy research project that could cause a revolution also centred in California:

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Talk about me being cynical over the bubbles of PR emanating from JCAP, these articles should have come out on April Fool’s Day.

      We’re 1% of the way there? We’re going to need a bigger laser? LOL That last one evoked the image of Roy Scheider in Jaws when he first saw the shark.

      He said “We’re going to need a bigger boat”.

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