Energy Dept. funds CO2 recycling, 'solar fuels'

Part of a stimulus plan, the Energy Department creates a California-based "innovation hub" for artificial photosynthesis and funds tests to use waste CO2 in building materials and plastics.

The Department of Energy announced two technology clean-energy research projects to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the same day that the Senate dropped efforts to include carbon limits in an energy bill this summer.

As part of a $106 million stimulus funding program, the Energy Department on Thursday named six companies which will be testing methods for using the CO2 from industrial processes as input for products, such as cement, fertilizer, or plastics.

The Energy Department also said that it will create a "solar fuels innovation hub," a research center focused exclusively on converting sunlight into liquid fuels. This type of technology-specific research center, funded with $122 million over five years, is often championed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu who saw this structure work well at Bell Labs and other corporate research centers.

Although the Energy Department has been active in seeding clean-energy research and development, the Senate has been unable to muster the votes for a comprehensive energy and climate bill favored by people who work for green-technology companies. Measures including a cap on carbon emissions from utilities and a nationwide renewable energy mandate have been scrapped in favor a trimmed-down bill, although a broader bill may be taken up again in the fall.

Making good use of CO2
Researchers at the Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub will effectively being trying to replicate the process of photosynthesis using advanced materials. The goal is to find materials, including catalysts and membranes, or plants that can use sunlight, CO2, and water to make a liquid fuel which stores the sun's energy.

Called the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, it will include researchers from the California Institute of Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. It will be one of three "innovation hubs" expected to be funded this year. The other two are focused on building efficiency and modeling and simulation for nuclear reactors.

The carbon recycling project, which also was originally funded as part of the stimulus, moved ahead on Thursday with the Energy Department picking six companies to pilot-test their technologies for using waste carbon dioxide. It represents the second phase of a carbon-capturing research project which started with 12 companies.

Alcoa and Skynonics will receive $12 million and $25 million respectively to test their scrubbers which convert flue gas into carbonate or bicarbonate materials. The output of Alcoa's process can be turned into construction fill material or soil amendments.

Silicon Valley start-up Calera received nearly $20 million to test a method which "mineralizes" flue gases to make construction materials. Another recipient is Novomer which received $18.4 million to test its catalyst for using CO2 in the production of plastics.

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