Molecular Science for a Conceptual Transition from Fossil to Solar Fuels (EuroSolarFuels)

Background and Objectives

Europe (and most of the individual countries) depends heavily on outside energy resources. These are dwindling and their supply can easily be jeopardized. Many dominating energy carriers are connected to environmental and social factors that clearly affect the quality of life. In particular this concerns fossil fuels with severe availability constraints, pollution problems and fast growing CO2 emissions. Many citizens worry about large, future nuclear-power programs. Therefore, a strong need is felt for heavy development of and investments in solar energy research. The term 'solar fuels' is becoming established since the beginning of the new Millennium. This introduction of the concept for solar fuels is spurred by worries for global warming and decreased availability of oil and gas. The promising perspective of solar fuels as important future energy carriers makes this a central theme that quickly moves up on the global research agenda. The EuroSolarFuels programme intends to accelerate the research on solar fuels on a pan-European scale.

Environmentally friendly fuel production is of strategic importance for both medium and long-term research. This is recognized worldwide and coincides with the goals of the research in this EuroSolarFuels programme. To succeed and to meet the scientific challenges, integration of science from many fields and a targeted multidisciplinary approach in chemistry, physics and biology are critical elements. The different scientific elements are described in scheme 1.

A solar fuel is always made using solar energy as the only energy source. Huge amounts of solar energy are available everywhere and often abundant where population is dense. Even in northern Europe there is enough solar energy to contribute substantially to the energy system in the summer with the long days. However, it is lacking in winter when energy demand is high. If this abundant solar energy could be converted into a storable energy carrier (fuel), solar energy could become an important energy source also in very northern countries.

The raw material for the fuel is the second, equally important key aspect. EuroSolarFuels targets water. Thus, EuroSolarFuels gathers molecular science with the aim to provide a CO2 lean fuel based on solar energy and water. The vision is that extensive development and increased use of solar fuels shall be a major path to follow to alleviate the effects of climate change caused by extensive use of fossil fuels.

The intended solar fuel can be different and there are only a few ideas for solar fuels that are pursued internationally. EuroSolarFuels assembles the available molecular science in Europe, in vivo and in vitro, that is key to advancing several promising routes for fuel production from solar energy and water. Driven by intentions in for example the European road map to the hydrogen society (where hydrogen should be non-carbon based at 2050) many scientists target hydrogen. This is a natural choice when water is the raw material. However, ideas for reduced carbon based fuels are also invited, as long as the electrons come from water and the energy comes from the sun.

Scientific Goal

The aim of EuroSolarFuels is to develop molecular science to produce a CO2 lean solar fuel to accomplish the grand challenge of phasing out fossil fuels. A key word in the research is solar energy conversion. All parts of the program aim for direct conversion of solar energy to chemical energy (a fuel). The solar fuel shall be formed from water as electron source, using visible light in direct processes involving (i) Photobiological solar fuel production in green algae and/or cyanobacteria that excrete the fuel (ii) Artificial photosynthesis in molecular systems and (iii) Solar fuel production in nanostructured and semiconductor-based systems.To meet these goals, EuroSolarFuels has the ambition to develop solar fuels research to a powerful European field in shorter time than possible with only individual or national initiatives. The program is inclusive and joins all scientists active in relevant fields in Europe.