If the vision for a new Solar Fuels Institute presented to a small group of potential donors this week is realized, these scientists would come together at a new campus on the east end of Telluride’s commercial district, on what is now a vacant lot just north of the Telluride Post Office.
They would utilize the new science facility run by the Telluride Science Research Center as a retreat from their home research laboratories where they could come together to share out-of-the-box ideas and collaborate with engineers to bridge the gap from theoretical scientific research to practical applications.
And ten or 15 years from today, you might be refueling your car with gasoline that has not been refined from fossil fuel, but instead has been manufactured by a process inspired by and derived from photosynthesis.
For these scientists, the development of a sustainable liquid fuel is the holy grail of revolutionizing how the world runs.
“We know how to capture sunlight, but the challenge is to store it,” Michael Wasielewski, Northwestern professor, director of the Argonne Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center, and lead scientist on the SOFI project, told the group of potential donors. “That’s what plants do through photosynthesis. In the last forty years there’s been a revolution in our understanding of how they do it and now there is a community of scientists dedicated to artificial photosynthesis.”
But the scientific challenge is so great, Wasielewski said, that in order to meet it in a short time frame the 25 or 30 groups of scientists working on it around the world need to collaborate. In attendance were five other lead scientists in the international solar fuels effort.
This sort of collaboration, in itself, constitutes a “revolution in how science is done,” Wasielewski said, whereby teams of scientists work together to solve a societal problem. But these teams from around the world need to spend face time together, and they need a focal point, and that’s where a “small but viable lab in Telluride” comes in.
There would be a kind of poetic sense of rightness to it if this effort is successful and if it happens in Telluride, Nana Naisbitt, executive director of the Telluride Science Research Center, told the group. Telluride already occupies a historic role in applied energy science, she noted. In 1891, local banker L.L. Nunn joined forces with Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse to build the world’s first alternating current power plant at Ames. Nunn built a house on Columbia Street to house the Cornell University engineers he brought to Telluride to work on the problem. That house was the first in the world to be wired for alternating current electricity.
“There are many models for this sort of scientific research institute,” Naisbitt said, mentioning Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the Aspen Center for Physics as examples. “Telluride could become synonymous with great science.”
But what makes TRSC unusual, she said, is that it does not try to direct the scientists who it hosts, but rather facilitates their work by bringing them together and letting them direct the topics of research and who is invited to participate.
The TRSC started in 1984, when 18 chemists came to Telluride to gather in an informal setting to consider new directions for their research. This summer TRSC brought nearly 1,000 scientists in a variety of disciplines to Telluride for more than thirty similar workshops.
A campus in Telluride would dramatically expand TRSC’s ability to host scientists year round, Naisbitt said, providing significant new diversification of the local economy.
While the Solar Fuels Institute is the driving force behind the development of the campus, which Naisbitt roughly estimated would cost between $25 million and $30 million, the TSRC campus would remain an institution open to scientists engaged in other theoretical scientific pursuits.
There is a sense of urgency surrounding the project, Naisbitt and Wasielewski both suggested, simply because there is an urgent need to solve the world’s energy crisis. To that end, TSRC is on overdrive to raise money for the Telluride campus to acquire the property and build a campus.
The billion dollars needed over ten years to fund the research of the Solar Fuels Institute – a small portion of which would support the ongoing costs of running the facility in Telluride – will come from three sources, Wasielewski said: philanthropic donations, venture capital, and industry. For a variety of reasons, not least the international nature of the effort, federal funding for the endeavor is not viable.