Could Direct Solar Fuels Power Military Vehicles?
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s counterpart at the Energy Department, ARPA-E, is funding a handful of initiatives aimed at creating processes to develop direct solar fuels.
The projects are being funded to the tune of about $15 million and are led by researchers at the University of Minnesota, Arizona State University, Sun Catalytix Corp. and Iowa State University.
While it has become rather common to convert the sun’s energy into electricity, scientists are looking to develop technologies that use sunlight as an ingredient in chemical reactions alongside microorganisms to produce fuels. This solar energy is considered direct because it doesn’t have to pass through an intermediate stage. Because microorganisms are not killed, ingredients can be used repeatedly to yield large quantities of fuel.
Iowa State researchers are a year into their work. They hope to use an algae-based organism called Chlamydomonas to harvest energy from sunlight and convert carbon dioxide into a replacement for petroleum. During photosynthesis carbon dioxide is converted into different materials, including lipids and starches. A team led by Iowa State professor Martin Spalding plans to manipulate the ingredients so more of the carbon dioxide is converted to oils.
“We’d like to produce something closer to petroleum rather than what it usually produces, which is something like vegetable oil,” Spalding said.
His team plans to assemble a library of traits in different algae strains so they can be recombined and tailored to specific uses. Eventually, researchers will be able to develop “a Chinese menu list of traits that you want and put them all in one strain,” Spalding said.
By the end of the project, they plan to hand over such strains to private companies or other academic institutions that can ramp up the oil production to an industrial scale.