Amid the sprawl of Northwestern’s Technological Institute, a vibrant mural of a mountain vista spans the wall of one unusual room. The sky in the mural is a little too blue, the windswept prairie grass a tad too golden. On a hike through those foothills outside Telluride, Colorado, legend has it that two colleagues hatched the idea for an organization to save the world, or at least power it. If the stereotype is that every great startup begins with a creation myth, Northwestern’s 3-year-old Solar Fuels Institute (SOFI) does not stray far.
SOFI’s vision is simple, in theory, yet difficult to achieve: Take sunlight and store it in chemical bonds. It’s the same idea at the heart of gasoline, only without the million-year lag time. We already convert sunlight to electricity with traditional solar panels, but we don’t have a good way to store that electricity.
SOFI envisions a new future for solar fuels research – a future conducive to those elusive breakthroughs, if only scientists learn to work together.
Solar fuels like hydrogen, methanol and synthetic gasoline store the sun’s energy in a liquid form that can be centrally produced and distributed. You can burn them in cars, planes, trains, power plants – basically anything powered with fossil fuels, only without the carbon guilt.
Solar fuels might be the environmental Hail Mary the world needs. But nobody is quite sure how to convert sunlight to lamplight with any degree of efficiency.
From its cranny in Tech, SOFI leads a global consortium that brings together universities from Rutgers University in New Jersey to Uppsala University in Sweden. Industry partners include significant players in the energy field, like Total and Shell. Rounding out the team are government-funded research institutions including the Brookhaven National Laboratory, the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the Korea Center for Artificial Photosynthesis in Seoul.
Together, SOFI members share knowledge and resources to solve the solar fuels problem as quickly as possible. This means getting behind solar fuels in every form and in every industry. In a way, SOFI hedges its bets by betting on everyone. Co-Managing Director Dick Co calls these SOFI members his “dream team.”
“It’s not business as usual,” he says. “We’re not here just to put 15 logos together so that we get the next big research grant to do more research. By leveraging, we feel like we have more shots on goal.”
His idea is to tackle the situation with the mentality and business model of a Silicon Valley startup. Traditionally, academic research is fragmented between competing institutions where scientists are compelled to publish original papers. SOFI seeks to break down these institutional barriers between labs and companies to share knowledge across a broader solar fuels community.
Bill Nye aficionados might recall an episode where the scientist splits water to illustrate chemical changes. This scene is a routine demonstration of electrolysis where an electric current divides H2O into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen. Electrons from a battery pass through the water and attract the positively-charged hydrogen atoms that pull away from the oxygen atom. SOFI aims to do this on a large scale. Once water is split, the hydrogen can be processed for use in solar fuels.
But according to its mission statement, SOFI exists to facilitate the development of an “efficient and cost-effective” solar fuel, and both of those qualifications throw a wrench in any notion of simplicity. Bill Nye’s jury-rigged electrolysis requires an existing energy source, which doesn’t apply when you’re trying to create a sustainable energy future. The tricky part of the solar fuels equation is getting the sun to do the water splitting.
If science does that, the industry can proceed with solar fuels production in two broad categories. One option involves directly harnessing the two hydrogen atoms from each split water molecule for compression and use in hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel is the carbon-free gambit whose only by-product is water.
“We’re not here to be the next WhatsApp. We’re here at the highest of levels to save the planet.”
Another process involves drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The same electron transfer reduces carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide, which, in combination with hydrogen, can be processed into methanol or even synthetic gasoline. Both fuels still produce CO2 when burned, but the point is moot because CO2 is drawn from the atmosphere to create the solar fuel.
That may sound simple enough, but it overlooks the decades already devoted to water splitting without success. What’s different for SOFI is the emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking, which is exactly the approach some experts recommend for stubborn scientific questions.
SOFI’s business model attempts to bring together this existing knowledge. Still, this sort of collaboration goes against the standard protocol etched into the minds of scientists. Even scientists at Argonne National Laboratory, a SOFI-member institution in Lemont, Illinois, meet the idea of fast-tracking science with skepticism.
Researchers are aware of the consortium’s efforts to open up channels of communication between industry partners and basic science, but the early stages of the consortium have yet to convince them that practical applications are within reach. It’s a sentiment that’s not uncommon among scientists focused on basic research.
“I think to get that kind of effort there has to both be a huge surge in both academic interest but also commercial interest, and I think that solar fuels is just not quite there,” says Alex Martinson, an Argonne National Laboratory chemist. “It’s fair to say that solar fuels is not even niche yet.”
By now Co has heard just about everything the naysayers have to say. His response? Shout louder and try harder. SOFI envisions a new future for solar fuels research – a future conducive to those elusive breakthroughs, if only scientists learn to work together. SOFI may physically exist in a tiny cranny of Tech, but its startup ambitions remain larger than life.
“Why bring this startup mentality? Why is industry important? The overarching reason is that we need solutions to mitigate climate change,” Co says. “We’re not here to be the next WhatsApp. We’re here at the highest of levels to save the planet.”