New funding supports milestone initiative to advance solar energy research

Penn’s Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology is a partner in a $40 million award from the Department of Energy that will accelerate fundamental research on solar technology.

a person pouring liquid nitrogen inside of a lab flanked by two computer screens
Ph.D. graduate Stephen Meloni in the physical chemistry lab of Jessica Anna, one of the groups that will be part of the Department of Energy's recently funded Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels (CHASE). 

Researchers in the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology have been awarded a Department of Energy grant focused on the production of fuels from sunlight. As a partner institution with the Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels (CHASE), the $40 million grant, awarded over five years, will accelerate fundamental research on solar technology in order to meet the increasing needs for clean and renewable energy sources. 

Penn will join six CHASE partner institutions, including Brookhaven National Laboratory, Emory University, North Carolina State University, and Yale University, in the project led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The aim of CHASE is to fill gaps in existing knowledge to allow for development of practical artificial photosynthetic systems. Building on previous accomplishments by the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, the newly funded research will also blend experiment with theory to help establish new design principles for fuels-from-sunlight systems. 

“What’s really exciting here is the goal to develop complete systems that take solar energy, CO2, and water all the way to liquid fuels,” says Karen Goldberg, the CHASE institutional coordinator for Penn. “That’s going to involve many different aspects—from materials to capture the light, to stable and reactive catalysts that can work together to viable ways to attach these catalysts to semiconductor surfaces, and so much more. We will all work on different parts of the process; there are so many people with very different skill sets needed to make this effort successful.”

Penn researchers were invited to join CHASE because of key strengths in energy science, materials science, and chemistry as well as the infrastructure of interdisciplinary collaborations developed through the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology. “Through the Vagelos institute, many of us have already been collaborating on various aspects related to this project and have been thinking about how we can apply our expertise to contribute solutions to the global energy challenge,” says Zahra Fakhraai. “The Institute really enabled us to come together as a group and organize when the opportunity arose to be part of the DOE solar hub.”

But tackling a global challenge as massive as energy and sustainability will require teamwork, which is why the multi-institutional structure of CHASE, one that brings world-leading researchers from different fields together, will be an essential component of the program’s success. “Team science like this is fun to be involved with because you have opportunities to learn new things from new people, all towards one goal,” says Eric Stach

The Vagelos Institute’s involvement in the CHASE partnership also comes at a time when energy-science research is gaining momentum at Penn, with a new energy science and technology building and a continued focus on training the next generation of scientists and engineers through grants and fellowships. “There’s going to be a lot of involvement with graduate students, postdocs, Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research students, and undergraduates who are keenly interested in this problem,” says Tom Mallouk. “And bringing together interdisciplinary teams that can work on big energy-related problems is a good match for the mission of the Vagelos Institute.”

For more information on the Fuels from Sunlight Energy Innovation Hub program visit