Axalta Distinguished Lecture Series Speaker Discusses Artificial Photosynthesis

Professor Daniel G. Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University, was the honored speaker at this year’s Axalta Distinguished Lecture Series. Axalta Coating Systems, a supplier of liquid and powder coatings, sponsored the event which was hosted by the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania last week. Professor Nocera’s lecture titled, “A Complete Artificial Photosynthesis,” explained his research that led to the development of an artificial device that converts water and carbon dioxide into biomass and liquid fuels using sunlight.

One of the challenges with using solar energy as a source of electricity is the need for a cost effective method to store the sun’s energy. One example of energy storage is photosynthesis, the process whereby plants and other organisms use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into biomass that can be used later, as needed, as a source of fuel. Professor Nocera has mimicked key aspects of this process by creating an artificial leaf.

“We first invented an artificial leaf that can split water into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight,” says Professor Nocera. “We then used a bio-engineered bacterium to convert carbon dioxide along with the hydrogen produced from the artificial leaf into biomass and liquid fuels. The hybrid microbial and artificial leaf operate at solar-to-biomass (10.7 percent) and solar-to-fuels (6.2 percent) yields, exceeding the 1 percent yield of natural photosynthesis,” states Professor Nocera.

“At Axalta, we are committed to delivering innovative coatings solutions that protect our customers’ products,” says Dr. Barry Snyder, Axalta senior vice president and chief technology officer. “Our sustainable coating systems benefit stakeholders, including our customers and the communities in which we operate. Professor Nocera’s research has the potential to have an impact by offering a sustainable source of energy. The translation of fundamental research to practical application, as embodied in Professor Nocera’s research, is an element of the collaboration between Axalta and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.”

“The Axalta Distinguished Lecture Series provides opportunities for our students and faculty members to interact with scholars in the world,” says Gary A. Molander, department chair and Hirschmann-Makineni Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. “This year, we are delighted to have Professor Nocera share his innovations with us. Professor Nocera’s work exemplifies the opportunities that exist to use fundamental science to create technologies that have broad societal benefits. We look forward to continued collaboration with Axalta in the years ahead.”

Past speakers have included world renowned scientists, including Nobel Prize laureates William Moerner (Chemistry 2014), Robert Grubbs (Chemistry 2005), Ahmed Zewail (Chemistry 1999), Steven Chu (Physics 1997), Harold Kroto (Chemistry 1996), Richard Smalley (Chemistry 1996), George Olah (Chemistry 1994), P.G. de Gennes (Physics 1991), Elias Corey (Chemistry 1990), Thomas Cech (Chemistry 1989), Donald Cram (Chemistry 1987), Jean-Marie Lehn (Chemistry 1987), John Polanyi (Chemistry 1986), Yuan Lee (Chemistry 1986), Roald Hoffmann (Chemistry 1981), and Herbert Brown (Chemistry 1979).

Wind and Solar Accounted for All New Electrical Generation Brought into Service in January

Two new federal government reports underscore not only the continued rapid growth of renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) in the electric power sector but also the ongoing failure of government forecasts to accurately anticipate and predict that growth.

In the first 2016 issue of its monthly “Energy Infrastructure Update” report, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) notes that five new “units” of wind (468 megawatts) and 6 new units of solar (145 MW) accounted for 100 percent of new electrical generation brought into service in January. No new capacity for nuclear, coal, gas, or oil was reported. Renewables now account for 17.93 percent of total installed operating generating capacity in the U.S.: hydropower (8.56 percent), wind (6.37 percent), biomass (1.43 percent), solar (1.24 percent), and geothermal (0.33 percent). In fact, installed capacity for non-hydro renewables (biomass, geothermal, solar, wind) alone (9.37 percent) now exceeds that for either nuclear (9.15 percent) or oil (3.84 percent).

The new renewable energy capacity added in January is continuing a trend. Just a month earlier, FERC’s December 2015 “Energy Infrastructure Update” revealed that renewables had accounted for 64 percent of all new electrical generating capacity installed last year.

Separately, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has issued its latest “Electric Power Monthly” (covering all twelve months of 2015) indicating that electricity generated by renewable energy sources grew by over 2 percent compared to 2014 and accounted for almost 13.5 percent of “utility-scale” electrical output in the U.S. last year.

Moreover, EIA’s end-of-the-year data reveals significantly higher growth in the renewable energy sector than the agency had forecast less than three months ago for calendar year 2015 in its “Short-Term Energy Outlook.” At that time, EIA said it expected “total renewables used in the electric power sector to decrease by 1.8 percent in 2015. Hydropower generation is forecast to decrease by 8.2 percent, and non-hydropower renewable power generation is forecast to increase by 4.2 percent.”

In reality, compared to calendar year 2014, non-hydro renewables increased by 6.9 percent, hydro output declined by just 3.2 percent, and the total of hydropower plus non-hydro renewables grew by 2.03 percent. For calendar year 2015, grid-scale renewables accounted for 13.44 percent of net U.S. electrical generation—up from 13.16 percent in 2014. Of that, non-hydro renewables accounted for 7.30 percent while conventional hydropower was 6.14 percent. Generation by all non-hydro renewable sources grew in 2015. Biomass was up by 0.3 percent, wind by 5.1 percent, geothermal by 5.6 percent, and solar by 49.6 percent.

Renewable energy growth is significantly outpacing earlier EIA projections. Less than four years ago, in its “Annual Energy Outlook 2012,” EIA forecast that non-hydro renewables would grow at an annual rate of 3.9 percent and provide about 250,000 thousand megawatt-hours in 2015 while non-hydro renewable electrical generating capacity would reach approximately 85 gigawatts (GW). It also forecast that non-hydro renewables would not surpass hydropower until 2020.

In fact, EIA now reports actual generation from non-hydro renewables in 2015 to have hit 298,358 thousand megawatt-hours from utility-scale facilities alone; in addition, at least 12,141 thousand megawatt-hours was provided by distributed solar photovoltaic and an unknown amount from other distributed, small-scale renewables that are not grid-connected (small wind). Further, electrical generation from non-hydro renewables surpassed that from hydropower more than a year ago.

And, according to FERC, the total installed generating capacity of wind, biomass, solar and geothermal units had reached 109.6 GW by January 2016—and this reflects just the combined capacity of larger renewable energy facilities. FERC’s data only includes plants with nameplate capacity of 1 MW or greater and therefore does not reflect the additional capacity provided by rooftop solar or other smaller, distributed renewable energy systems.

“Just a few years ago EIA had forecast that renewables might provide 15 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2035,” notes Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “It now appears that goal could be reached within the next two years and quite possibly sooner.”