five-year period. What’s more, DOE officials instructed the scientists to refocus
their efforts away from making devices
that could be commercialized in the next
several years and toward basic scientific
research on the complex processes underlying artificial photosynthesis.
Tackling the underlying scientific
challenge of full artificial photosynthe-
sis will require “basic, transformational
scientific research and discovery that will
eventually enable these technologies,” says
Christopher Fecko, the program manager
for JCAP in the DOE’s Office of Science.
“And we are making excellent progress.
Technology deployment and commercial
production are in the future.”
“In the future” could mean in five
years or a few decades. The retreat from
hammering out a working solution as fast
as possible is an admission that JCAP’s
original goal of artificial photosynthesis
is a lot harder and further off than scien-
tists understood in 2010. It’s also a tactical
decision not to spend federal money creat-
ing a working device to produce hydrogen
fuel, even though that technology is much
closer to commercialization.
The first step in natural photosynthesis is to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which is released as a by-product.
The hydrogen then reacts with carbon
dioxide to produce carbohydrates, which
fuel plants’ growth. Artificial photosynthesis seeks to use the same inputs—solar
energy, water, and carbon dioxide—to produce energy-dense liquid fuels. If those
fuels were derived from carbon dioxide
captured from air, the process could be
carbon-neutral, adding no new emissions
of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.
There are a number of government
groups and startups working on bringing
artificial photosynthesis to commercialization. The question is, will they bear
fruit in time to help limit global climate
change? One problem is that making solar
fuels carbon-neutral will require entire
new technologies and infrastructures to
capture carbon from the air or emissions
from fossil-fuel plants. The other problem
is that converting carbon dioxide to complete the photosynthesis process is very,
very hard. It involves six separate chemical steps, and there is no known catalyst
that will convert carbon dioxide into fuel
efficiently and selectively, the way there
is for the water-splitting reaction. JCAP’s
shift in focus won’t get us any closer, in the
near term, to actually building devices and
creating an industry around solar fuels.
That’s why Lewis believes it’s a mistake to move away from prototyping and
scaling up hydrogen-generating devices.
Hydrogen can be burned directly in modified internal-combustion engines, he
argues. It can be converted to synthetic
fuel via the Fischer-Tropsch process. It
can be used in fuel cells to store energy
and to produce electricity, leaving only
water as a waste product.
The water-splitting prototypes devel-
oped at JCAP will still require extensive
development to be turned into useful com-
mercial devices. Atwater says other labs
and other researchers can bring it to frui-
tion. “Our job is to make research advances
that give rise to technology options,” he
says. “We’re scientists—we can’t push the
ball all the way to the goal line.”
In a sense, JCAP is a case study in the
promise and the perils of long-term fed-
eral funding for energy technologies. Chu
speaks ruefully of the road not taken by
the program he created. Basic science is
a necessary and wonderful thing, he says.
“But it’s not what I had in mind.”
Making solar fuels carbon-
neutral will require entirely
“If a single accident means
that the developers were
reckless, that’s a very high
bar to set.”
— Silvio Savarese, assistant professor at Stanford who specializes in machine vision, on the
investigation into Tesla Autopilot’s fatal crash.
“We need to boil the
ocean, find the genetic
populations, and get them
on the trials.”
— Keith Flaherty, a founder of Strata Oncology,
which wants to give free genetic tests to cancer
patients to match them to drug studies.
“They’d still be there to feel
the roar of the crowd but
be watching in a slightly
— Paul Jacobs, vice chairman and co-owner of
the Sacramento Kings, on why people would go
to a sports arena just to watch via virtual reality.
BY THE NUMBERS
Amount the White House is spending this year to
create a database of health information to help
advance precision medicine.
Amount of data Microsoft has written into DNA
to prove its usefulness for data storage.
Amount that Brexit could cost the U.K. annually
as a result of uncertainty over energy and
Price per metric ton of lithium hydroxide, a key
mineral for battery storage—nearly triple the
price a year ago.