by: Robert Tindol

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded $6.5 million to found the Center for Sustainable Energy Research at the California Institute of Technology. The center will conduct research on solar-driven renewable-energy sources. The six-year grant targets various promising technologies that could result in cheap alternatives to fossil fuels.

According to Harry Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor and professor of applied physics and materials science, the goal of the center is develop the technologies that will transform the industrialized world from one powered by fossil fuels to one that is powered by sunlight. More energy from sunlight strikes the earth in one hour than all of the fossil energy consumed on the planet in a year--so what is missing is not the solar energy, but the science and engineering innovations to use it.

"This new center is the beginning of a major campus effort to address future energy needs," says Atwater, adding that the center will focus on several avenues of research, first taking on technologies pertaining to solar-driven generating methods for fuels such as hydrogen or methanol.

"Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight is a grand challenge because it is the confluence of a number of hard problems," says Atwater. "But success would enable us to either generate and use hydrogen directly as a carbon-free chemical fuel, if society elects to burn the hydrogen by itself, or convert hydrogen to another hydrocarbon fuel like methanol by a carbon-neutral process, if we decide that is the way to go."

Fuel cells using methanol that's made from renewable sources would be carbon-neutral because carbon dioxide would both be consumed and emitted in equal quantities by the reactions for fuel generation and use.

"Which is better? That's the subject of enormous debate," Atwater says. "Currently, we have a liquid-fuel economy, and methanol would have the advantage of being another liquid. However, a hydrogen-as-fuel future would enable us to realize the dream of a fuel that's pollution-free both locally and globally.

"But the biggest challenge is to find a way to split water with sunlight that is robust, efficient, and replaces the platinum catalyst with something that is scalable to terawatts of energy. So platinum is out."

In sum, the Center for Sustainable Energy Research is looking at several technologies to accomplish the goal of providing fossil-fuel alternatives, and several research groups at Caltech are applying their individual expertise to various parts of the problem. Replacing the platinum catalyst, for example, is the goal of Professor of Chemistry Jonas Peters, who has had success with using cobalt as a catalyst. Working on different aspects of solar conversion are Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry, and Nate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry. Sossina Haile, professor of materials science and chemical engineering, is working on improving fuel cells.

Haile says that society should look toward new possibilities for the future in terms of energy technology rather than scrambling at the last minute when existing options become scarce. "There's an anonymous quote that the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones," she says.

"There is little question that sustainable energy is the grand challenge of our century," Haile adds. "The Moore Foundation has recognized the urgency of the situation. With the foundation's generous support, we will explore radical new ways of addressing all parts of the energy cycle, its generation, its distribution, and its consumption--starting with the basic premise that sunlight provides the planet with more than ample energy to meet our global demands.

"In the fuel-cell portion of the work, we focus on efficient conversion of chemical energy to electricity. And by designing fuel cells that are not restricted to hydrogen as the fuel, we relax the requirement that the world develop a hydrogen storage and delivery infrastructure before the many benefits of fuel cells can be realized."

Atwater says that the Moore Foundation funding is a crucial beginning for the center that could encourage the energy sector to invest more heavily in research and development of alternative sources of energy.

"We hope the center will become a rallying point on campus for work on renewable-energy sources of many kinds," he says. "The solar-driven fuel cycle is our initial effort, but we'll become involved in other promising renewal-energy research opportunities as time goes on."

"I think the story over the next few years will be steady progress on the individual areas of research, guided by the long-term goal of integrating them all together."

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was established in 2000 and seeks to develop outcome-based projects that will improve the quality of life for future generations. It has organized the majority of its grant making around large-scale initiatives and concentrates funding in three program areas: environmental conservation, science, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

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