RTI International, Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are going in together on a new research institute that is focused on making liquid fuel directly from sunlight.

In announcing the new joint effort Wednesday, RTI said James Trainham , who most recently was senior vice president of engineering at Sundrop Fuels, Inc., is executive director of the new institute. Trainham is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and formerly served as the vice president of science & technology at PPG Industries and as the chief technology officer at Invista, Inc. (formerly DuPont Textiles & Interiors).

The institute’s chief scientist is Thomas J. Meyer of UNC Chapel Hill, RTI said. Meyer is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was associate director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is a pioneer bin solar research.

The technology behind solar fuels is similar in concept to photosynthesis in plants, but does not rely on organisms or plant life, the announcement said. It is more like that in more conventional chemical processes.

Each of the four partner organizations brings a needed element to the collaboration. Duke, which is consistently ranked in the top 10 universities nationally, brings strong modeling and theory and deep knowledge of nanoscale materials and molecular assemblies. NCSU, with an annual research budget focused on energy that exceeds $90 million, brings strong science and engineering programs, including semiconductor and device integration.

UNC Chapel Hill, which is consistently rated in the top five public universities in the United States, brings its Solar Energy Research Center as well as national leadership in catalysis and dye-sensitized photoelectrochemical cells. UNC is presently home to the Department of Energy-sponsored Frontier Research Center for Solar Fuels, which Meyer leads.

RTI has extensive expertise in new energy technologies to produce clean energy and fuels.

The new institute, which was formed through a memorandum of understanding, combines the extensive capabilities of all four partner institutions.

"This agreement is a classic example of the total being greater than the sum of its parts," said James Siedow, vice provost for research at Duke University. "Each of the four institutions involved has particular strengths to bring to the effort to develop solar fuels. To have all this talent and these resources in a relatively small area is what makes the Research Triangle such a great place to locate this energy research institute."

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