Researchers detail latest in storage, renewables research

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, June 13, 2016

House lawmakers will consider technologies this week that could, in theory, turn solar and wind into baseload power and create an alternative to biofuels without the need for farmland.

The House Science, Space & Technology Subcommittee on Energy will hear from scientists working on solar fuels, electricity storage and advanced materials. The purpose of the hearing is to examine the “overall status” of research on the technologies in the United States, said a committee spokeswoman.

Among those testifying is Case Western Reserve University professor Daniel Scherson, who plans to tell the committee there needs to be more funding on energy storage in general. Currently, much funding comes through the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.

“I want to emphasize in order to get to the next generation of energy storage, we are going to have to invest resources, namely increase funding,” he said. Scherson has worked on a range of fuel cell and battery projects.

Scherson will discuss options for moving away from lithium-ion battery technology in electric cars as a way to extend their range dramatically, according to an excerpt from his prepared testimony.

Solar fuels refer to the conversion of solar energy into chemical energy, a process also known as artificial photosynthesis.

It aims to turn the sun’s power into fuel. Energy would be kept in chemical bonds that could then be used to power a car or a building at night.

One idea is the “bionic leaf,” which uses solar energy and a catalyst to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

A study in Science last week outlined how bacteria can be used to consume the resulting hydrogen and convert carbon dioxide from the air to produce liquid fuels.

In theory, the process could create liquid fuels for transportation without using farmland to grow crops like corn for biofuels (Greenwire, June 3).

DOE supports research in artificial photosynthesis generally via the Center for Solar Fuels, established in 2009 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Nate Lewis, a professor at California Institute of Technology, said he plans to tell lawmakers about his research on different types of materials that can tap sunlight, air and water to generate a range of fuels, whether it be hydrogen or methanol.

The challenge, he said, is finding the right “secret sauce” for materials that do so efficiently and affordably.

“I think it’s a challenge we are up to with modern methods. … If we can do it, then we can really have a foundation for a game-changing energy system,” Lewis said.

Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, June 15 at 10 a.m. in 2318 Rayburn.

Witnesses: Nate Lewis, professor, California Institute of Technology; Daniel Scherson, professor, Case Western Reserve University; Collin Broholm, professor, Johns Hopkins University; Daniel Hallinan, assistant professor, Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering.