News

Universal News School News

April 30, 2009

ASU center will focus on using fundamentals of photosynthesis to unlock new sources of energy

TEMPE Ariz. — Arizona State University will be home to a new Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) announced by the White House in conjunction with a speech delivered by President Barack Obama.

The ASU center, one of 46 new EFRCs, will pursue advanced scientific research on solar energy conversion based on the principles of photosynthesis, the process by which plants capture sunlight and convert it to useful energy. All 46 centers are being established by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as part of an overall effort to tackle the "grand challenges" and accelerate scientific advances needed to build a 21st century energy economy. DOE plans to fund ASU's EFRC for Bio-Inspired Solar Fuel Production at a level of $14 million over a five-year period.

"As global energy demand grows over this century, there is an urgent need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and imported oil and curtail greenhouse gas emissions," said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. "Meeting this challenge will require significant scientific advances. These centers will mobilize the enormous talents and skills of our nation's scientific workforce in pursuit of the breakthroughs that are essential to make alternative and renewable energy truly viable as large-scale replacements for fossil fuels."

"The fundamental nature of the work that will be carried out at ASU's new center speaks to the breadth and depth of research at our university," said R.F. "Rick" Shangraw Jr., ASU vice president of research and economic affairs. "Understanding and using the scientific principles underlying the photosynthesis process, will allow us to devise new and environmentally responsible ways of tapping future energy sources. This project will rely on the talents of many people across a range of scientific disciplines, making it perfect for our interdisciplinary approach to research."

Essentially all of the energy we use today – from oil, coal and natural gas – originally was solar energy that was captured by plants through photosynthesis. The traditional way of unlocking energy from these compounds has been to burn them, which also releases greenhouses gases.

Over a period of more than 15 years, ASU has assembled a first-class team of scientists who have been studying various pieces of the photosynthetic apparatus, understanding its chemistry and biochemistry, and learning how to design and build solar energy harvesting components based on this fundamental science.

Devens Gust, an ASU professor of chemistry and biochemistry who is director of the new center said, "This grant will allow us to put together a complete system that starts with the absorption of sunlight and ends with the creation of a clean fuel, such as hydrogen."

"It also will provide resources to educate students at all levels about renewable energy, and it could lead to whole new industries," Gust added. "I am especially pleased that this center is being established in Arizona, which has a tremendous potential for solar energy utilization."

The goal of ASU's new center is to design and construct a synthetic system that uses sunlight to convert water cheaply and efficiently into hydrogen fuel and oxygen. Society requires a renewable source of fuel that is widely distributed, abundant, inexpensive and environmentally clean.

The use of solar energy to produce a clean fuel such as hydrogen is essentially the only process that can satisfy these criteria at a scale large enough to meet the world's energy demands. Plants and similar organisms use photosynthesis to oxidize water, producing oxygen and fuel compounds such as carbohydrate and hydrogen. The system to be developed in the ASU center will be designed using principles borrowed from natural processes.

Making a fuel requires not only energy, but also a source of electrons, and the most promising source of electrons on a large scale is water. For more than 2.5 billion years, photosynthetic organisms have been harvesting sunlight and using it to remove electrons from water and produce biological fuels. This process involves both solar energy harvesting units that use light to produce electrochemical energy, and biochemical catalysts that use this energy to remove electrons from water molecules and employ them to make fuels such as carbohydrates and oils.

Following the natural design principles of photosynthesis, scientists in the new ASU center will investigate how to make artificial analogs of these catalysts and light harvesting units, and how to put them together to build a complete system that uses sunlight to oxidize water (producing oxygen gas) and make hydrogen or other fuels.

"This project demonstrates the best of chemistry and biochemistry research," said William Petuskey, chair of ASU's chemistry and biochemistry department. "It combines the creativity of making new molecules that have not existed before with the purpose of designing in functionality that converts solar light to other useful forms of energy. This effort is the culmination of groundbreaking research that will lead to establishing bioenergy as a major field of research and economic development."

ASU principal investigators on the project in addition to Gust include: professors James Allen, Petra Fromme, Giovanna Ghirlanda, Anne Jones, Yan Liu, Ana Moore, Thomas Moore, Kevin Redding, Dong-Kyun Seo and Hao Yan, as well as Clark Miller from the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (CSPO).

The 46 EFRCs, each funded at $2 to $5 million per year for an initial five-year period, were selected from a pool of some 260 applications. Researchers at the newly formed EFRCs will take advantage of new capabilities in nanotechnology, high-intensity light sources, neutron-scattering sources, supercomputing and other advanced instrumentation in an effort to lay the scientific groundwork for fundamental advances in solar energy, biofuels, transportation, energy efficiency, electricity transmission and storage, clean coal and carbon capture and sequestration, and nuclear energy. For more information on the EFRC program, go to: http://www.sc.doe.gov/bes/EFRC.html.

ASU's center is one of 16 EFRCs funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The criterion for providing an EFRC with Recovery Act funding was job creation. The EFRCs chosen for funding under the Recovery Act provide the most employment for postdoctoral associates, graduate students, undergraduates and technical staff, in keeping with the Recovery Act's objective to preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery.

"The ASU center will not only investigate new scientific realms, but also study how best to incorporate new discoveries about energy into useful technology and the fabric of everyday life," Gust said.

The EFRC award is an example of the economic benefit a research university can bring to its state. Each year, Arizona universities contribute nearly $1 billion into the Arizona economy from their research, most of which is funded by the U.S. government and entities from outside the state. Research money brought in by universities is restricted money that can be used only for the research activity it supports. It cannot be used to compensate for cuts in other parts of the university's budget.

####

Source:

Devens Gust, (480) 965-4547

Media Contacts:

Skip Derra, (480) 965-4823; skip.derra@asu.edu

Jenny Green, (480) 965-1430; jenny.green@asu.edu