U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman today (July 22) awarded up to $122 million over five years to a team of top California scientists to establish an Energy Innovation Hub aimed at pioneering
revolutionary methods to generate fuels directly from sunlight.

“This is a major science win for California,” said John Hemminger, dean of UC Irvine’s School of Physical Sciences, who will coordinate the development of instruments capable of measuring at the molecular level the catalysts that would convert water and other highly abundant chemicals into fuels.

The proposal by the California team – the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis – won the peer-reviewed competition over other proposals in the final running from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northwestern University/Argonne National Laboratory. The Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub will be led by the California Institute of Technology, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, UCI and other universities.

It will bring together leading researchers in an ambitious effort to simulate photosynthesis for practical energy production. The objective is to drive the field of solar fuels from fundamental research – where it has resided for decades – into applied research and technology development, setting the stage for the creation of a solar fuels industry.

“Energy Innovation Hubs have enormous potential to advance transformative breakthroughs,” said Poneman. “Finding a cost-effective way to produce fuels as plants do – combining sunlight, water and carbon dioxide – would be a game changer, reducing our dependence on oil and enhancing energy security. This Energy Innovation Hub will enable our scientists to combine their talents to tackle this bold and highly promising challenge.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote to Energy Secretary Steven Chu in March, urging the department to select California for the proposed hub. On Thursday he said, “California has always been the birthplace for the nation’s and the world’s newest waves of research and innovation, so it couldn’t be more fitting that the Department of Energy chose our state for this groundbreaking work. This energy hub will bring together some of the best minds to work on solutions that will reduce our dependence on oil and increase our energy security, all while creating jobs in our state.”

“I’m very proud that California has been on the cutting edge of the clean energy movement,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “With this award, some of California’s top scientists will continue to lead the way forward. This is very exciting.”

And Sen. Barbara Boxer said: “I am so pleased that this California consortium will receive this investment in clean fuels research, which has the potential to reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, increase our national security and create jobs in California.”

The Fuels from Sunlight hub is one of three nationally to be established in 2010. It will be funded at up to $22 million this fiscal year and will then be funded at about $25 million annually for the next four years, subject to congressional appropriations.

In May, the DOE announced that a team led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee will create a hub on modeling and simulation for nuclear reactors. The selection for the remaining hub will be announced within the coming months. The hubs are large, multidisciplinary, highly collaborative teams of scientists and engineers working over a longer time frame to achieve a specific high-priority goal.

JCAP research will be focused on discovering the functional components necessary for a complete artificial photosynthetic system: light absorbers, catalysts, molecular linkers and separation membranes. The team will then integrate those components into an operational solar fuel system and develop scale-up strategies to move from the laboratory toward commercial viability.

The hub will be directed by Nathan S. Lewis, George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry at Cal Tech. Consortium members include UCI, UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego; the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at UC Berkeley; Cal Tech; and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University.