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Energy is the single most important challenge facing humanity today.
—Nobel Laureate Rick Smalley, April 2004, Testimony to U.S. Senate


The Caltech Center for Sustainable Energy Research (CCSER) has as its ambitious goal to transform the industrialized world from one powered by fossil fuels to one that is powered by sunlight. The vast resource potential of solar energy—more energy from sunlight strikes the Earth in one hour than all of the fossil energy consumed on the planet in one year—motivates the Center's work on the science and engineering innovations required to harvest the enormous potential of solar energy.
CCSER is initially focused on three efforts:

Solar Electric Generation
Photovoltaic conversion, the direct generation of electricity from sunlight, is a clean and inexhaustible source of electricity generation.  Photovoltaics (or PV cells) are now commercially available, but the cost per watt is still much too high for wide-scale practical implementation, and challenges exist in scaling this technology to the terawatt scale. We are addressing these challenges by designing new materials and structures with potential for very high conversion efficiency and which can be produced by inexpensive manufacturing processes. We are also advancing designs that allow us to use the entire solar spectrum and to increase conversion efficiency.
Solar-Driven Fuel Synthesis
CCSER's second focus is the conversion of sunlight into chemical fuels, an example of which is the splitting of water to make hydrogen. Although the electrolysis of water is straightforward, currently available methods require a power source and a platinum catalyst. By using solar energy to replace conventional electrical power sources that ultimately use fossil fuel, and by developing alternative catalysts to platinum (which is expensive and scarce), CCSER researchers will set the stage for new technologies for solar-driven fuel synthesis that are scalable to the terawatt scale.

Fuel Cells
Chemical fuels enable energy storage, but require methods for clean and efficient conversion to electricity on demand. Therefore, the third focus of CCSER is on fuel cells, where again, a key objective is to develop alternatives to platinum as a catalyst for conversion of renewably generated hydrogen or hydrocarbon fuels. This is made possible through the discovery by CCSER researchers of a new class of fuel-cell electrolytes, solid acids, that can operate at temperatures higher than polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, but far lower than solid oxide fuel cells.

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Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air
Cahill Center, Hameetman Auditorium, Monday, April 5, at 4 p.m. Read More...
March 29, 2010

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