Los Angeles Times

Remodeled Caltech lab turned green

Caltech students and professors looking to create green energy now have a sustainable central hub.

Over the past 18 months workers gutted the 1971 Earle M. Jorgensen Laboratory and renovated it into a modern glass building to house the Resnick Institute and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. A dedication will take place at the Pasadena campus Oct. 19.

“We had to redo essentially everything,” said John Onderdonk, director of sustainability programs at Caltech. “It was originally a computer science building. It was a complete change in the building’s mission.”

The building’s windows take maximum advantage of natural light, its roof and air duct system are designed to reduce energy consumption, and the plumbing uses recycled water.

The Resnick Institute focuses on renewable energy projects, partially funded by Southern California Edison. State law requires utilities to obtain 33% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Utilities already have met the short-term goal of providing 20% renewable energy by 2013, according to a California Public Utilities Commission report released earlier this year.

Mani Chandy, a Caltech computer science professor, said the state’s timeline is “exciting” because Caltech researchers can work with companies seeking to quickly generate non-fossil fuels.

The challenge is that the day-to-day generating power of natural energy sources such as sunlight and wind is unpredictable and they present distribution difficulties.

“If you had a big stockpile of coal, you could tell for sure what’s going to happen next week” with your energy supply, he said.

The new lab will serve as a space for Resnick Institute scientists to meet with utility companies, engineers and economists to work on the smart grid.

“We aren’t all moving to the new building,” he said. “It’s more of a locus of interaction.”

The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, which shares the new building with Resnick, is working to create fuel from sunlight that is more cost-efficient and sustainable than fossil fuels. The largest program of its kind in the nation, the center has been given a five-year budget of $122 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop the technology.

Nathan Lewis, the director of the center, said the technology is not just around the corner, though the scientific foundation is out there.

“The first thing we build is not going to be the iPhone 5. It will barely work,” he said. “It’s all about taking 40 years of basic research efforts scattered around the world, in a common goal, with a common theme, all working together, trying to focus on a system that works.”

Currently, 120 scientists are working at the center, but Lewis said he expects 200 by the end of the year.

Finding a way to create cost-efficient solar fuel is “an important problem, arguably, the problem,” Lewis said. “This is the Grand Canyon and if we don’t build the bridge across we’ll never get to the other side.”

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