When we talk about the wonders of evolution and life on Earth, many people look at the complex end results and are amazed that such a thing as an eyeball can happen. But few things are more impressive than photosynthesis, when life forms evolved that turn sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen. That is the true miracle that made our planet habitable and life as we know it possible. We mimicked eyeballs and thinking machines years ago, but we still can’t quite do that simplest of things, artificial photosynthesis.

But we might be getting closer, thanks to the work being done by the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), working out of the brand new Chu Hall, named in honor of former Energy Department Secretary and Lab Director Steven Chu. Chu is a former director of the Berkeley lab and is known to love solar power. (How much? See the Onion here.) 

The goal of the center is ambitious and amazing; JCAP head Frances Houle, quoted in this news release, said:

JCAP’s current mission is to demonstrate a scalable, sustainable device that can generate fuels from sunlight and air at least 10 times more efficiently than plants….we will build on progress made since 2010 to fulfill our mission to address the key challenge of replicating what plants can do: generate complex hydrocarbons from air and sunlight under mild conditions.
lab interior at JCAP

This is the interior of the lab, where the mindboggling stuff will happen. (Photo: Berkeley Lab)

The 40,000-square-foot building, designed by SmithGroup of San Francisco to LEED Gold standards, will house 100 researchers, all trying to solve a fundamental problem in solar energy that nature does very well: storing the energy of sunlight. Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos explains:

Our goal for this place is to solve the solar energy problem. Right now we can only get energy from the sun when the sun is shining. Then we have to solve the problem of what do we do the rest of the time … If we can make fuel from sunlight, that problem would really be transformed radically. It could change the picture of how we use energy in the future and create a whole new industry.
Make no small plans in this joint. This is truly the stuff that dreams are made of, absorbing CO2 and using sunlight to make alcohols and hydrogen, They can run our cars and generate electricity with nothing coming out of the tailpipe but water and oxygen. As Chu notes, “It’s a very big deal … We simply need to save the world, and it’s going to be science that’s going to be at the heart of that solution.”

A big deal indeed; if it works, this changes everything. 

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.