Carolina Schools Join Solar Fuels Push

In a time in which giant fields of photovoltaic cells and solar concentrators are sprouting like weeds, solar fuels don’t get much mainstream notice. But behind the scenes, the field is hopping with activity, and another big player has jumped in: North Carolina’s three major universities and a private firm announced the formation of the Research Triangle Solar Fuels Institute (RTSFI).

Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State universities joined with RTI International on the collaboration, aiming to figure out a way for man to accomplish what nature does so well: convert sunlight into chemical energy. The chief challenge is to find an economically viable catalyst for the process – one that works quickly and efficiently, whether it’s something modified from nature or designed from the ground up using inorganic processes and materials.

image via RTSFI

Solar fuels were a favorite of U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu when he directed the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL), and not surprisingly are getting federal backing now that Chu heads up the U.S. Department of Energy. This past summer the department announced a $122 million grant over five years to Caltech and LBL researchers to establish an Energy Innovation Hub focused on solar-fuel research.

The North Carolina project announced this month will be headed by James Trainham, who formerly served as the vice president of Science & Technology at PPG Industries and as the chief technology officer at Invista (formerly DuPont Textiles & Interiors). UNC-Charlotte chemistry professor James J. Meyer was named RTSFI chief scientist.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.