UNC Receives $17.5 Million to Help Develop Solar Fuels

The University has been awarded a grant expected to be valued at $17.5 million over five years for an innovative interdisciplinary research center to develop solar fuels from next-generation photovoltaic technology. The money will come from the U.S. Department of Energy and President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The UNC initiative is one of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers being funded at U.S. universities and research institutions to accelerate scientific breakthroughs for advanced energy technology development, the White House announced Monday in conjunction with a speech by Obama at the National Academy of Sciences. The UNC center is the only EFRC funded in North Carolina and one of 16 that received Recovery Act funds for job creation.

The UNC effort, to be directed by Thomas J. Meyer, Arey Professor of chemistry, will involve collaborations with more than 20 faculty in the departments of chemistry and physics and astronomy, as well as scientists at N.C. State, N.C. Central and Duke universities, and the University of Florida.

“What a great moment for Carolina: a shining example of our collaborative culture; an area of keen interest and deep expertise in our faculty; an effort of intense international interest and importance; and all pulled together by our own Tom Meyer, one of Carolina’s great visionaries, who built his entire career as a scientist and leader here in Chapel Hill,” said Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86.

Said Meyer, “This is great news for UNC and for North Carolina. It will enable us to become national and international leaders in what may be the most important endeavor of our time, creating a sustainable energy future.”

The UNC center will engage in research on low-cost and efficient solar fuels production by artificial photosynthesis and producing electricity by next-generation photovoltaics. Photovoltaics is the field of technology and research related to the application of solar cells for energy. The center will support a mix of about 30 postdoctoral fellows and graduate students.

Solar fuels could use the sun’s energy to make fuels from water and carbon dioxide for heating, transportation and energy storage. Next-generation photovoltaics could generate electricity by inexpensive “solar shingles” on the roofs of buildings.

The UNC center’s activities will also be integrated with those of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium, a research consortium among UNC, Duke, N.C. State and the Research Triangle Institute.

Besides Meyer, other lead investigators on the project from UNC are John Papanikolas, associate professor; Edward Samulski, distinguished professor; and Wenbin Lin, professor and joint adjunct professor, all in the department of chemistry.

Meyer, who served in leadership roles at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico as associate laboratory director and at UNC as vice chancellor and vice provost for graduate studies and research, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

The 46 EFRCs, to be funded initially for five years, were selected from a pool of 260 applications received in response to a request from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science in 2008. Selection was based on a rigorous merit review process utilizing outside panels composed of scientific experts.

EFRC researchers will take advantage of new capabilities in nanotechnology, high-intensity light sources, neutron scattering sources, supercomputing and other advanced instrumentation – much of it developed with Department of Energy’s Office of Science support over the past decade – to lay the scientific groundwork for fundamental advances in solar energy, biofuels, transportation, energy efficiency, electricity storage and transmission, clean coal and carbon capture and sequestration, and nuclear energy.

Of the 46 EFRCs selected, 31 are led by universities, 12 by DOE National Laboratories, two by nonprofit organizations, and one by a corporate research laboratory. The criterion for providing an EFRC with Recovery Act funding was job creation.