Here Comes The Sun

Graham Fleming, Deputy Lab Director at Lawrence Berkeley National Labratory.

you have filled your gas tank lately, then you probably do not need
much convincing that a more affordable alternative to fossil fuels
would be a good thing. Throw in issues like national security, climate
change, increasing demand, and decreasing supply, and the case for a
radically new global energy supply seems like a no-brainer.

takes brains—lots of them—is figuring out just what to do about it.
That is where a new project being spearheaded by at Lawrence Berkeley
National Laboratory comes in. Called Helios after the Greek sun god,
this ambitious, multidisciplinary endeavor is looking to the sun to
help replace our current dependence on carbon-producing fossil fuels.
Research initiatives focus on harvesting the sun's energy directly
through improved solar panels and indirectly through the conversion of
plants and other forms of biomass into fuel.

here is a solar panel from a solar research facility at UC Merced.
Research in alternative energy is being conducted at each CITRIS campus.

the Berkeley lab we are very strong in biology and also in nanoscience.
This goes for the UC Berkeley campus as well. Well, can we harness the
technologies we have developed in those areas to put sunlight, carbon
dioxide, and water to use to make transportation fuels — something we
can really use to replace the transportation fuels that are now in use
in the U.S.?" asked Jay Keasling, Professor of
Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at UC Berkeley and Division
Director for Physical Biosciences at LBNL, during his presentation at
CITRIS's Corporate Sponsor Day ( in May. The answer, he believes, is yes.

Keasling, Helios’s co-director alongside Laboratory Associate Director Paul Alivisatos,
is one of several prominent scientists from UC Berkley and LBNL who
have joined forces to pioneer sustainable, scalable energy sources
under the project. These scientists are inspired, in large part, out of
alarm over global climate change, says Graham Fleming, Deputy Lab Director at LBNL and Melvin Calvin Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UC Berkeley.

think that people are genuinely concerned about the consequences of
continuing on the current trajectory the planet is on, with respect to
generation of energy, and are genuinely alarmed by the timescale on
which really serious consequences might arise. So I think there's
certainly a strong feeling it is a crucial problem for scientists to
address. I also think there is a strong feeling that we really do not
have this instant the tools to solve the problem, and we need
fundamental science well connected with technology to put in place the
kinds of solutions that will enable sustainable growth in the world,”
says Fleming, whose own research is focused on the principals of

Among Helios's more far-reaching
visions are 40-cents-per-gallon gas made entirely from carbon-neutral
biomass; fields of self-fertilizing plants destined to become fuel;
colonies of green algae and cyanobacteria bio-engineered to produce
fuels at higher efficiency; self-regulating and self-repairing organic
solar panels; and nature-inspired synthetic catalysts that would
convert sunlight directly into fuel. (More detailed explanations of
these ideas can be found at LBNL's energy research Web site ( .)

Helios researchers are interested in creating self-fertilizing plants for use as biomass fuel. Image courtesy of BKM_BR on

the scientific leaps needed to arrive at such goals were not
challenging enough, all of Helios's solutions must also be scalable.
"We need cheap, large-scale solutions. We need solutions that affect
the whole world, especially poorer areas," Fleming says.

we are not there yet. Take solar panels. A great way to generate
electricity, but also extremely costly and not very rugged, making them
impractical for much of the world. And what happens when the sun is not
shining? There is currently no easy way to store or transport that
energy. Likewise, corn can be turned into clean-burning ethanol, but
getting it to where it needs to be consumed causes so much pollution
and requires so much energy that it is hardly worth the effort.
Further, ethanol cannot be transported long distances.

Helios's emphasis on finding more efficient ways of converting plants
to fuel, which not only can be stored and transported but also can be
adopted by the entire planet. "One thing we do on a scale which is
appropriate to the scale of the problem is agriculture. We do it on a
global scale. We have infrastructure that allows us to do it on this
scale and so this seems to me an important thing," Fleming says.

While agriculture certainly holds promise, Helios's project manager, Elaine Chandler,
says that at this early stage they are going down a number of different
research pathways. "One of the pitfalls we wanted to avoid is
down-selecting too soon and throwing out very promising approaches,
just because we are ignorant about them. It is a strategic decision to
do it initially this way. As we get more knowledgeable, we will focus
our efforts in ways that are clearly more promising," Chandler says.

says the Helios approach is similar to the invention of the transistor
at Bell Labs. "It took 12 years to get to the first transistor. They
worked on very many fundamental things, solid state physics theory of
all aspects of electronic structure, and people could do anything they
thought was important. But the overall structure was pushing things in
the direction of the end goal," he says.

To reach that
end goal, Helios will need scientists with expertise in synthetic
biology, nanomaterials, electrochemistry, and other fields to work
closely together. This emphasis interdisciplinary collaboration caused
Jay Keasling to compare the Helios research model to that of CITRIS.

have set in place and in motion the idea that we are going to do this
research in a completely new way, much as CITRIS does its research
here. So we are going to be learning a lot from CITRIS and the
infrastructure you have built here in how to organize this research
effort," Keasling said in his presentation.

is interested in harvesting the best of breed technologies from Helios
as well as other novel energy generation projects under way, and
developing societal scale energy systems in concert with our corporate
sponsors and other stakeholders," says CITRIS Director Sastry.

Chandler, "CITRIS is very interested in looking at the interface
between technology and man, and I think there is no [area] that it is
more of an issue than energy today."

For more information:

Future Energy Sources: A Berkeley Lab research initiative

Jay Keasling's presentation at CITRIS's Corporate Sponsor Day