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DOE investing $100M in energy Holy Grail

Funding research in turning sunlight, CO2 and water into fuel Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – February 26, 2020

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) plans to provide up to $100 million over five years for research into artificial photosynthesis for the production of fuels from sunlight.

"Sunlight is our most basic energy source, and the ability to generate fuels directly from sunlight has the potential to transform our energy economy and vastly enhance U.S. energy security," said Paul Dabbar, under secretary for science.

Plants use photosynthesis to convert energy from the sun into energy-rich chemical fuels using water and carbon dioxide. The goal of the research is to develop an artificial photosynthesis system that, like natural photosynthesis, would generate usable fuels directly from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.

Replicating the natural photosynthesis process to generate fuels is considered by many as a Holy Grail of sorts, a means of creating a fuel source while pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Significant scientific barriers, however, remain to the development of such a system, requiring new discoveries and fundamental breakthroughs.

One of the major hurdles for scientist is finding the materials that can absorb sunlight and trigger the right chemical reactions.

Three platinum group metals – platinum, rhenium and iridium – have shown promise but are much too expensive for commercial applications.

Titanium dioxide – a mineral commodity that is very safe, stable and plentiful – has shown promise as an effective and efficient catalyst for artificial photosynthesis.

A nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy is another material being researched as an efficient catalyst for hydrogen production.

One of the most exciting materials to emerge in the realm of artificial photosynthesis research is graphene, a one-atom thick sheet of graphite that is great at conducting electrons and absorbs all wavelengths of light. Studies have shown that graphene could be a key to the ultimate goal of creating an artificial leaf that can use sunlight to create hydrogen fuel.

The Department of Energy's roughly US$20 million per year in funding will support the establishment of one large, or possibly two smaller, DOE Energy Innovation Hubs – integrated multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research teams aimed at accelerating the fundamental scientific breakthroughs needed to enable solar fuel production.

The department's planned investment in the Fuels from Sunlight Hub program represents a continuing large-scale commitment of U.S. scientific and technological resources to this highly competitive and promising area of investigation.

Proposed research is expected to build on the capabilities and accomplishments developed to date by the solar fuels research community, including work by the DOE Office of Science-supported Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, Energy Frontier Research Centers, and core research programs.

"This effort will ensure that American scientists continue to lead in the highly challenging but extremely promising area of artificial photosynthesis research," said Dabbar.

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Shane Lasley, Metal Tech News

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With more than 16 years of covering mining, Shane is renowned for his insights and and in-depth analysis of mining, mineral exploration and technology metals.


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