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Department of Energy Funds Research in Artificial Photosynthesis

$3M Award Is Largest in New England

UMass Lowell Image
Assoc. Prof. Mengyan Shen, right, works with postdoctoral researcher Cong Wang in the laser lab.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) has awarded a team of researchers from UMass Lowell, UMass Boston and the University of Wisconsin–Madison a three-year, $3 million grant to develop a metal catalyst for converting sunlight, carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into hydrocarbon fuel. 

“If successful, this technology could help alleviate the world’s energy needs,” says physics Assoc. Prof. Mengyan Shen, head of UMass Lowell’s Laboratory for Nanoscience and Laser Applications and principal investigator for the project.

The study is one of 66 new energy ideas from 24 states that will share in the $130 million funding from ARPA-E, which seeks out “transformational, breakthrough technologies that show fundamental technical promise but are too early for private-sector investment.”

This year’s awardees focus on a wide array of technologies, including advanced fuels, vehicle design and materials, building efficiency, carbon capture, grid modernization, renewable power and energy storage.

The award received by the team is the fifth largest in the entire country among universities, after the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley (with $4 million apiece) and the Georgia Institute of Technology (two projects worth $3.7 and $3.6 million).

Other recipients of the federal funding include small and large private companies, national laboratories and non-profit organizations.

Replicating Nature in the Lab

The team is applying the principle of photosynthesis — the process by which plants, algae and many forms of bacteria use energy from sunlight to convert CO2 and water into organic compounds while releasing oxygen as byproduct — to produce the hydrocarbon fuel in the laboratory. 

The researchers use nano-optics and catalyst materials to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into hydrocarbon compounds.

“Waste carbon dioxide is an enormous resource, representing more than 200 million metric tons per year,” he says. “Converting it to liquid hydrocarbon fuel will decrease our carbon footprint and reduce the nation’s dependence on petroleum.”

A Global Energy Solution

The discovery was made by Shen’s lab at UMass Lowell. Last summer, his lab received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) worth nearly $417,000 to improve the process. 

“The goal of our NSF grant is to study the basic mechanism while the ARPA-E award is to develop the technology for commercialization,” explains Shen.

“As part of the ARPA-E grant, Dr. George Huber, formerly with UMass Amherst and now with the University of Wisconsin–Madison, will lead the chemical engineering effort. UMass Boston will also participate, helping with optical engineering,” he adds.

Members of Shen’s team include postdoctoral researcher Cong Wang and graduate student Qinghua Zhu.

Says Shen: “This is an exciting opportunity afforded to us by ARPA-E because UMass Lowell is about being hands-on, and Lowell being a cradle for the American Industrial Revolution, we want to be part of the next-generation developments in alternative energy.”