Solar energy production has made huge strides in recent years, as advances in photovoltaic technologies -- the underpinnings of solar panels -- have made it easier and cheaper to harness energy from the sun.
In North Carolina, this can be seen from the growing number of solar panel farms that dot the countryside, giving the state the second-largest solar capacity in the country.
But there still exists challenges about how to store the energy harnessed by those solar farms.
"When it is not sunny out, those photovoltaics are not generating electricity," said Jillian L. Dempsey, an associate professor of chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill. "If you don't have a way to store that electricity, which requires things like large-scale batteries, you're out of luck when it's raining or it's dark outside."
If you could convert solar energy into a liquid form, though, it becomes much easier to store and transport, Dempsey said.
But there are many scientific barriers to overcome to make that reality.
Now, a group based at UNC-Chapel Hill has landed a huge grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to advance research on the topic.
The UNC-led Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels (CHASE) will receive $40 million over the next five years to experiment with new designs to convert sunlight into storable fuels.
CHASE will partner with other institutions, including N.C. State University, Yale University and Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, as part of the grant.
"Sunlight is the world's most basic energy source, and an ability to generate fuels directly from sunlight has the potential to revolutionize the U.S. energy economy," Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar said. "This effort will keep America at the forefront of artificial photosynthesis research, a field of great challenge but also huge promise."