Solar Production of Electricity and Fuels: Is There a Cost-Effective Path Forward?

Nov 30, 2011  |  4:00pm | Elings Hall 1601
Eric McFarland
Professor of Chemical Engineering, UC Santa Barbara

Thermal radiation from nuclear reactions in our sun is the sunlight which sustains life on earth today and powered the photosynthetic processes responsible for the inexpensive fossil fuels which have made possible mankind’s present prosperity.  Investigations of photovoltaics and photoelectrocatalysts for artificial solar photosynthesis have been ongoing for decades and the fundamental processes involved are well known.  Highly efficient semiconductor device structures have been demonstrated, nonetheless there are no cost-effective material systems or processes capable of significant commercial production of electricity or chemicals.  Research on improved photoelectrocatalyst material systems comprised of earth abundant materials in cost-effective system configurations will be discussed and how theory guided materials discovery has been utilized to improve the efficiency of light absorption and energy transfer in photoelectrochemical conversion.  The impact of fundamental economic constraints on practical systems and processes will be highlighted and suggestions made for science based approaches which might make meaningful progress towards meeting one of mankind’s greatest challenges.


Eric McFarland is a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research is focused on coupling fundamental chemical processes at surfaces with novel material systems for applications to the production and interconversion of fuels and energy. McFarland’s B.S. and M.S. degrees are from U.C. Berkeley in Nuclear Engineering and his Ph.D. is from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and following an internship in General Surgery, he joined the Nuclear Engineering faculty at MIT. In 1991 he moved to the University of California at Santa Barbara. McFarland has worked closely with industry and developed a number of technologies related to the chemical industry. He was a founding technical director for Symyx Technologies a chemical technology company devoted to combinatorial material science and serves as President and CEO of GRT Inc., a catalysis based energy company. McFarland has published over 140 scientific papers and holds over 35 U.S. and foreign patents.

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