Construction of new Solar Energy Research Center begins

An illustration depicts Berkeley Lab's Solar Energy Research Center.
SmithGroup Architects/Courtesy
An illustration depicts Berkeley Lab's Solar Energy Research Center.

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Construction has begun on a new solar energy research facility at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that will be funded through a combination of state and grant funds, officials announced Friday.

The Solar Energy Research Center, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2014, will have approximately 40,000 square feet of space to house the northern branch of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, among other smaller labs. Consistent with its green agenda, the facility will be designed using renewable and recyclable materials and to maximize natural light.

“I think (SERC) will be beautiful, and it will house all of the workers in one area,” said lead JCAP director Nathan Lewis. “It will really enhance collaboration and congeal the whole program into a major coherent effort to make fuel from sunlight.”

The construction is estimated to cost a total of $54.4 million. The state will refund the university up to $30 million worth of bond sales to investors, according to UC spokesperson Brooke Converse. She added that UC officials are planning to begin selling bonds in spring 2013.

The remaining $24.4 million for the project will be paid for through a $10 million grant from the California Public Utilities Commission and a $14 million gift to the university that will be used as an endowment for external financing of the project, Converse said in an email.

The new facility will be used by JCAP to research artificial photosynthesis and its role in generating an alternative solar-based fuel source, according to Heinz Frei, acting director of the northern division of the center, which is split between the Berkeley lab and the California Institute of Technology. He said that the fuel will be created from material that is already abundantly found on nonarable land.

“Artificial photosynthesis uses a single integrated system to directly convert carbon dioxide and water molecules through sunlight into a transportation fuel in one system,” Frei said. “It’s similar to a plant leaf that converts carbon dioxide and water with sunlight into sugar molecules and biomass, but it’s a nonbiological engineered system.”

If successful, the solar fuel generator would produce fuel that is 10 times more efficient than current biofuel made from corn, Frei said. This way, fuel could be made on a large enough scale to have a significant impact on worldwide fuel consumption, he added.

JPAC is currently two years into a five-year plan to produce a working fuel generator prototype. The prototypes that the researchers have already produced do not yet create fuel at a large scale that is more energy-efficient than corn-based biofuels.

“You want to make something that is like gasoline with similar properties but in a renewable fashion — that’s what artificial photosynthesis will do,” he said. “Biofuels are already available but not yet solar fuels — that’s a technology that doesn’t exist yet, so this is an important reason to have this center.”

Contact Andy Nguyen at [email protected].

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  • Drewl

    Can’t we build structures that are classically beautiful or will (aesthetically) at least withstand the ridicule of time? Our campus and the associated campus of LBL are 50% incredibly-beautiful and 50% monstrosity.

    That said, I love the investment in solar. Stellar news!

    • Calipenguin

      I also applaud this new research, although the intent is to create a fuel that can be burned, which generates global warming gasses.

      • helios

        It’s carbon neutral. The carbon comes from the CO2 in the air. When we burn carbon sources that have been already nicely sequestered for us underground (oil/natural gas) we are adding CO2 from the atmosphere; in this scheme, no additional carbon is released.