The winner is the University of Tokyo in cooperation with INPEX Corporation (Japan). Their team has developed a fully functional prototype of an artificial photosynthetic fuel production system. During a 72 hour test, their device was able to produce renewable methane gas, which in turn powered an engine. The other two finalists are the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA), France, and the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
The challenge to solve
The challenge was to build a fully functional, bench-scale prototype of an artificial photosynthesis based system which can produce a useable synthetic fuel.
Artificial photosynthesis is widely considered to be among the most promising new technologies to deliver sustainable alternatives to current fuel supplies.
Due to its ability to use a combination of sunlight, water and carbon from the air to produce energy, artificial photosynthesis is regarded as a potential breakthrough energy technology.
It can be used to produce hydrogen or carbon-based fuels – collectively referred to as solar fuels – which offer an efficient and transportable means of storage of solar energy. Solar energy, in turn, can be used as an alternative to fossil fuels and as a feedstock for a wide range of industrial processes.
The device to be built needed to integrate the whole process from light capture to fuel production and be capable of powering a small engine.
For the purpose of this prize, artificial photosynthesis (AP) was understood to be a process that aims at mimicking the physical chemistry of natural photosynthesis by absorbing solar energy in the form of photons.
The solution was required to use this energy to generate fuel molecules through a synthetic system to be delivered as a single integrated device that utilises either biomimetic, nanotechnology, synthetic biology or a combination of these systems.
This prize has
- stimulated innovation and focussed research and development towards energy applications in a new energy technology through increased public and commercial interest
- accelerated the development of new innovative energy conversion systems using solar light and natural elements to produce renewable fuels to be used in industry, housing and transport
- created a stimulus for industrial participation and creation of start-ups, pushing the artificial photosynthesis technology for fuel production to the next level of development
- generated interest in the subject and fostered interdisciplinary collaboration among potential applicants, such as students, young researchers and engineers
- highlighted the diversity of potential solutions
The European Commission has managed the contest and awarded the prize based on the judgement of independent experts.
A number of innovative devices and systems demonstrating the use of sunlight to produce a fuel ready to be used.
Eligibility and award criteria
The contest was open to all legal entities (i.e. natural or legal persons, including international organisations) or groups of legal entities.
The production of fuel in the form of hydrogen and the use of conventional photovoltaic cells for the light harvesting process or to collect light and electrolysers were not permitted.
The prize was awarded to the contestant(s) who will, in the opinion of the jury, demonstrate a solution that best meets the following cumulative criteria.
- degree of system integration from light capture to fuel production
- device/system performance
- production of fuel that will be used in an engine
- widest market potential
- commercial potential of the device