Energy Dept. pours $122M into turning sunlight into fuel

The U.S. Department of Energy announced today that it has awarded $122 million to a team of scientists in California to establish an Energy Innovation Hub focused on converting sunlight into different types of liquid fuel.

An interdisciplinary effort spanning the California Institute of Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Hub will work on artificially simulating photosynthetic processes, which can be harnessed to produce innovative sources of energy, the Department says. The ultimate goal is to commercialize resulting technology.

Several other companies have made a name for themselves trying to achieve similar feats. Venture-backed operations like Joule Unlimited are trying to derive fuels from chemical processes that combine sunlight, water and carbon dioxide — usually CO2 emissions from power plants and other sources of greenhouse gases.

Being able to produce fuel this cleanly would be game changing. So many biofuel startups and even oil and gas giants are chasing the same goal: to produce clean, affordable fuel at scale that could replace gasoline in existing automotive and jet engines. Companies like Coskata, Codexis and LS9 are all engineering microorganisms and catalysts to convert feedstocks ranging from corn to municipal waste into usable fuel. But so far, none of thee businesses have been able to gain serious traction.

There is room in the market for a bold new idea in this arena. Making fuel out of sunlight, CO2 and water would avoid some of the major hurdles — including money, time and scale — that have prevented many of the other ongoing fuel projects and companies from achieving broader adoption.

The newly-funded center, to be called the Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub, is one of three such projects to get funding from the federal government this year. One of the other hubs focuses on simulating nuclear reactor technology.