The path to realizing a world where fuels can be generated cleanly and sustainably from sunlight cannot simply be an extrapolation of how fundamental research and business are done today. We have witnessed the many disciplines involved in solar fuels research become increasingly more compartmentalized over the years, inhibiting a smooth progression of fundamental research into translational R&D. Global experts in the sub-fields of solar fuels research today are indeed well known and easily recognizable. However, in order to accomplish SOFI’s goal of producing a commercializable solar liquid fuel, areas beyond the traditional silos will need to be identified and supported. SOFI will specifically fund projects that integrate various system components from different labs, thus educating a workforce adept at solving problems at the intersections of current knowledge.
No one knows what the ultimate solar fuels device will look like. What scientists and engineers do know today is that SOFI’s research is inherently complex and extremely subtle. The slightest changes in acid concentration or surface topology on the nanoscale, for example, could be the difference between a successful experiment and a failed one. Researchers are thus tasked with exploring an enormous volume of different concepts, parameters, materials, and conditions. Although tremendous amounts of research on solar fuels are being carried out today, and have been for decades, the majority of the results are not being effectively communicated. Peer-reviewed publication provides a forum for recognizing creativity and innovation, but only successes (and even just a subset of them) are routinely disseminated through that mechanism. SOFI will change the process and culture of solar fuels research by employing digital collaborative tools and electronic lab notebooks that foster consortium data and information sharing, without jeopardizing the IP and interests of its Members. Sharing knowledge will allow SOFI researchers to explore the vast parameter space together more effectively, and eventually to arrive at the solutions faster.