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Manmade photosynthesis may prove an infinite source of energy

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Is Alternative Energy Investment Overlooking 'Sunthetics?'

Global investment in renewable energy research has grown more than 50% in the past five years to US$ 110 billion.  While that is no small amount, the majority of that investment is geared toward electricity generation.  But there is no suitable substitute for oil.  With global demand projected to reach 92.1 million barrels of oil a day by 2020, it might be time to challenge the conventional wisdom of our alternative energy investment to include a renewable alternative to oil.

How scientists make liquid fuel from the sun


The “sunthetics” process starts by splitting water with the sun’s energy. When the hydrogen and oxygen are separated the oxygen is sold, as an industrial gas while the hydrogen moves to the next step in the process.
In the next stage a catalytic reaction combines the hydrogen with carbon dioxide to yield intermediate fuels such as methanol and dimethylether (DME). In the last production stage, the final fuel is produced in the form of gasoline. Diesel and jet fuel can also be produced via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis.

The top five countries that invest the most in alternative energy (China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Brazil), to a great extent, seem to be overlooking an alternative that promises to provide an infinite source of liquid energy – ‘sunthetics’ – fuel produced from the sun through a process similar to photosynthesis.

One newly formed research organization committed to finding a commercially viable way to produce liquid fuel from the sun is the Research Triangle Solar Fuels Institute (RTSFI), headquartered in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.  The Institute is a collaborative between Duke University, the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, and RTI International, a non-profit research organization dedicated to improving the human condition by turning knowledge into practice.

RTSFI has gathered a stellar cast of National Academy of Science and Engineering members.  Executive Director Dr. Jim Trainham previously held positions in industry as Vice President of Science & Technology for PPG Industries, Chief Technology Officer for Invista, Inc. (DuPont), and Senior Vice President at Sundrop Fuels, Inc., a company pursuing unique solar gasification technology.  Chief Engineer Dr. John S. Newman is Research Triangle Institute Distinguished Fellow and Professor of the Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley, where he has won numerous awards for fundamental work in electrochemical engineering. RTSFI Chief Scientist Dr. Thomas Meyer, one of the most highly cited chemists in the world, is a pioneer in solar fuels research, having pursued economically feasible solar fuels for 35 years, some of that time as Associate Director for Strategic Research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico.

The researchers are quick to point out that the sun provides more energy to the earth’s surface in one hour than mankind uses in a year.

“We have all the pieces in place – the vision, expertise, and commercial development experience to make this happen,” says Trainham.  “With appropriate funding we will inevitably harness the energy from our world’s largest, most dependable source of energy and be able to store it chemically.”

As intriguing as that sounds, much work must be done to make ‘sunthetic’ fuel, solar driven transportation liquids such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, a reality.  But all three experts believe world knowledge in chemistry, materials engineering, and nanotechnology, has advanced to the point that solar fuel as an affordable energy source, is closer than ever before.

With sufficient funding for research and development, they say it is possible, in as little as a decade, to do what nature has done for millions of years through photosynthesis – create and store energy from the sun.

Over the past three decades funding for solar fuel research has ebbed and flowed based on the economics of petroleum; high interest when petroleum prices rises, lower when prices fall.   A number of factors are converging now to make solar fuels more appealing.  Demand in China, India, and developing countries is up.  Prices at the pump will likely exceed five dollars per gallon this year. Possibly six. Environmental disasters due to accidents have colored perceptions about subsea drilling and nuclear energy has hit a roadblock triggered by seismic activity in Japan.

Such factors have converged in the past to make solar fuels research enticing but another factor is now emerging to make it realistic – government subsidies. Economic pressure is growing on oil exporting governments to reduce or eliminate subsidies in their countries and let market forces set prices. Similarly, pressure is growing on oil importing governments to cut subsidies to oil companies to reduce budget deficits.

Using the U.S. as an example, RTSFI maintains that the true price most people pay for gasoline at the pump is actually much higher—from five to eight dollars higher—when accounting for the hidden costs of importing oil to refine gasoline.  Numerous credible studies show trillions of dollars have been drained from the US economy because oil is imported to make gasoline.  America loses jobs, federal and state income, and spends a significant amount on defense in the Middle East to stabilize global oil prices.

“Financing sunthetic research is not for the faint of heart,” says Dr. Trainham, “But when the true price of gasoline and diesel are recognized, investors may very well consider financing capital projects as big as these will be.”

With demand for energy increasing, can our world afford not to invest in every potential source of alternative energy?

Peter Fox, Director
Outreach & Communications
Research Triangle Solar Fuels Institute

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