Berkeley Lab opens solar research facility renamed after former director

Ashish Samaddar/Staff

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory opened the Solar Energy Research Center on Tuesday, which contains laboratories committed to the research and development of fuels from sunlight.

The 40,000-square-foot, three-story structure cost $59 million and will house about 100 people associated with the lab’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, or JCAP. The building, which received an official renaming as Chu Hall after former Berkeley Lab director Steven Chu, will house the development of photovoltaic and electrochemical solar energy systems for the making of transportation fuels and for research on plants.

The building will also be home to Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute, a program involving researchers from Berkeley Lab and other campus departments.

The design of Chu Hall supports the lab’s “team culture,” with spaces designed for the work of JCAP researchers, with low-vibration rooms, large reconfigurable lab spaces and synthetic areas with ample fume hoods, according to an issued press release.

Chu, who received his doctorate in 1976 from UC Berkeley, became the Berkeley Lab director in 2004 and the U.S. Secretary of Energy in 2009. He was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997.

Chu said that converting the sun’s energy to a chemical-storage system is very important and that carbon dioxide should not be stored but recycled. Urgency and making rapid progress is necessary, as it was in the expedition of the Manhattan Project during World War II, Chu said.

“So what are we doing? We are recycling carbon dioxide,” Chu said. “It’s the recycling that goes to really long-term sustainability.”

According to Chu, JCAP is trying to use sunlight to make hydrogen, split water and capture carbon dioxide by using inexpensive electricity, which solar- and wind-powered energy sources would provide. By combining hydrogen and carbon dioxide, Chu said, methanol and linear hydrocarbon chains could be made, ultimately leading to energy production.

Chu said the laboratory has surpassed his wildest expectations for what could be done, especially in having many scientists under one roof working on developing renewable energy.

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele said that he is excited about the lab, from what he has heard, and that UC Berkeley has a “seamless, mutually supportive, intertwined” relationship with Chu. He referred to Chu as the “favorite son” because of his contributions and achievements in science, saying that having a national laboratory next door to UC Berkeley amplified its relationship with Chu.

Funding for the structure came from the University of California; the California Public Utilities Commission; appropriations made by the state of California; and private support from the Simons Foundation, Sea Change Foundation, and Mark Heising and Liz Simons, a former Daily Californian staff writer who has also donated to the Daily Cal.

“It’s our only hope for the future,” Simons said. “If we don’t do (research), we will be looking at a dirty planet.”

Robert Tooke is a news editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robertono_t.