Regents Back Plans for New LBNL Solar Energy Center

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Development of a new solar research center located at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory advanced Tuesday, as the UC Board of Regents' Committee on Grounds and Buildings approved financial and design proposals at the regents' meeting at UC San Diego.

According to its proposal, the Solar Energy Research Center will consist of a three-story laboratory and office building with 21,471 assignable square feet to support solar energy research, such as using synthetic materials to produce transportation fuel. The project is consistent with the revised plan approved by the regents in September 2009. Original plans for the project were submitted to the regents in November 2006.

The total project construction is estimated to cost $54.4 million - $30 million funded by state lease revenue bonds, $14.4 million by external financing and $10 million by grants.

With research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Basic Energy Sciences, the center will be one of three solar energy initiatives in the Helios project at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory currently working on renewable transportation fuels, said Heinz Frei, senior scientist and deputy director of the project.

The project's Environmental Impact Report was also approved at the meeting Tuesday, ensuring that the project will incorporate other energy-saving initiatives, such as installing regenerative elevators, cooling towers and energy-saving lighting design. The plan for the facility is also in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, a state requirement for environmental protection.

According to Frei, the new facility will focus its work on developing man-made materials that can be used in photosynthetic processes, creating oxygen and water from carbon dioxide.

By avoiding natural materials, these processes become more efficient, because many of the other by-products of natural photosynthesis are left out, he said.

"The current biofuel process is not efficient, and it additionally needs arable land. Its current potential only addresses 30 percent of the current fuel market," Frei said. "Artificial photosynthesis is efficient, doesn't need arable land and addresses 100 percent of that market. If we succeed in producing transportation fuel, it will have a large impact in the field of renewable energy."

SERC will evade biology by using materials and technology on the nanoscale. Scientists hope to develop robust artificial photosynthetic systems that use carbon dioxide and water to make fuel using sunlight as an energy source. Using solar cells, scientists collect electrical currents and use them to produce high-energy dense fuel, according to Frei.

Other collaborative projects research enzymes and their conversion of cellulose to fuels to make biofuel, Frei said. These include the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville - also funded by the Department of Energy - and the Energy Biosciences Institute in Berkeley, a partnership between UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, funded by a BP grant.

Lawrence Berkeley Lab faculty, joint faculty from UC Berkeley, UC students and postdoctoral researchers will work in the new center, said Frei.

"All major departments on campus will be involved, from physics to chemical and mechanical engineering," he said. "We need everyone to contribute."


Kate Lyons covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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