Department of Energy Funds Research in Artificial Photosynthesis

$3M Award Is Largest in New England

Assoc. Prof. Mengyan Shen

Assoc. Prof. Mengyan Shen, right, works with postdoctoral researcher Cong Wang in the laser lab.

21 December 2012

By Edwin L. Aguirre

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) has awarded a team of researchers from UMass Lowell, UMass Boston and the University of Wisconsin a three-year, $3 million grant to develop a metal catalyst for converting sunlight, carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into hydrocarbon fuel.

“If successful, this technology could help alleviate the world’s energy needs, decrease its dependence on fossil fuels and address environmental concerns such as high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” says physics Assoc. Prof. Mengyan Shen, head of UMass Lowell’s Laboratory for Nanoscience and Laser Applications and principal investigator for the project.

The study is one of 66 new energy ideas from 24 states that will share in the $130 million funding from ARPA-E, which seeks out “transformational, breakthrough technologies that show fundamental technical promise but are too early for private-sector investment.”

This year’s awardees focus on a wide array of technologies, including advanced fuels, vehicle design and materials, building efficiency, carbon capture, grid modernization, renewable power and energy storage.

The award received by Shen’s team is the fifth largest in the entire country among universities, after the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley (with $4 million apiece) and the Georgia Institute of Technology (two projects worth $3.7 million and $3.6 million). In New England, it represents the largest single award, besting Harvard, MIT, Yale and Brown.

Other recipients of the federal funding include small and large private companies, national laboratories and non-profit organizations.

Replicating Nature in the Lab
Shen and his team his team are applying the principle of photosynthesis — the process by which plants, algae and many forms of bacteria use energy from sunlight to convert CO2 and water into organic compounds while releasing oxygen as byproduct — to produce the hydrocarbon fuel in the laboratory.

The team uses novel nanostructure arrays on solid metal surfaces to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into hydrocarbon compounds. Intense laser pulses are used to irradiate the surfaces of cobalt or iron microparticles and induce the formation of the nanostructure arrays.

“Photosynthesis involves dissociating carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen, and water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then synthesizing hydrocarbons from the hydrogen and carbon monoxide,” explains Shen. “With metal nanostructures formed with femtosecond laser irradiation, a nature-like photosynthesis can be easily achieved and maintained at low cost using Earth-abundant metals.”

A Global Energy Solution
Last summer, the researchers received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) worth nearly $417,000 to improve the process.

“The goal of our NSF grant is to study the basic mechanism while the ARPA-E award is to develop the technology for commercialization,” explains Shen.

UMass Lowell and UMass Boston’s share of the ARPA-E award is $1.13 million and $150,000, respectively, and will be used for research and development. The rest of the funding goes to the University of Wisconsin for marketing and managing the project.

“Our goal is to build a prototype of the metal catalyst,” says Shen.

The hydrocarbon fuel can be used for transportation or for generating power. Carbon dioxide extracted from the atmosphere to produce the hydrocarbons will help reduce the amount of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. It can also be stored indefinitely, buried deep in geological formations.

When burned as fuel, the amount of carbon dioxide released by the combustion would be equal to the amount of CO2 extracted from the atmosphere, resulting in a net gain of zero, notes Shen.

“Waste carbon dioxide is an enormous resource, representing more than 200 million metric tons per year,” he says. “Converting it to liquid hydrocarbon fuel will decrease our carbon footprint and reduce the nation’s dependence on petroleum.”

In addition to hydrocarbons, Shen says their process produces substances similar to amino acid.

“Our proposed method is also potentially applicable to fertilizer production with sunlight, which could greatly impact agriculture and the world’s food supply,” he adds.

Members of Shen’s team include postdoctoral researcher Cong Wang and graduate student Qinghua Zhu.

“The intellectual property belongs to UMass Lowell,” says Shen. “The technology is ours.”

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