12/03/2010 08:00:00

Caltech and the Clean-Energy "Sputnik Moment"

The quest for clean energy, and our country's competitiveness both now and in the future is, according to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (seen here in a photo from Caltech's 2009 Commencement ceremonies), our "Sputnik Moment."

"From wind power to nuclear reactors to high-speed rail," Chu noted in a speech to the National Press Club on Monday, November 29, "China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead. Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it's time for America to do what we do best: innovate."

Where to find that innovation? At Caltech, of course. More specifically—as Chu pointed out in his descriptions of some of the top technological innovators in the United States—at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. JCAP, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub headed by Caltech's Nate Lewis and his Lawrence Berkeley National Lab counterpart, Peidong Yang, is focused on producing a fully artificial version of photosynthesis with no living components or wires.

In his speech, Chu spoke of JCAP as "a program that will produce abundant domestic fuel directly from sunlight."

Look at the way a plant makes chemical energy. It takes sunlight, it takes water, and it uses sunlight and energy to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. And it takes carbon dioxide, and reduces the carbon dioxide and builds a carbohydrate that we can then turn into a sugar that can turn into a fuel.
And so the question is, can we design, using nanotechnology, something that begins to replicate what a plant does? But we have an advantage. We have access to materials that the wet biological world doesn't have access to, therefore, we can in principle design something better… We decided that in the last couple of years there's been enough advances in science and nanotechnology that we have a shot. In maybe five, ten years, this can really happen in a cost-effective way. And so an Energy Innovation Hub has been started to fund that type of research.

Secretary Chu's speech can be viewed in its entirety on the National Press Club's website.

Written by Lori Oliwenstein