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Scientists recreate photosynthesis to make clean fuel

Scientists have discovered a way to artificially produce photosynthesis, the process key to all life on Earth, that could have huge benefits for renewable energy.

According to the chemists at Cambridge University the technology could “pave the way towards sustainable and practical solar fuel production.” Their research was published in Nature Energy.

The new device, based on “photosheet” technology takes CO2, water, and sunlight as its ingredients, and then produces oxygen and formic acid, a storable fuel. The acid can either be used directly or converted into hydrogen – another potentially clean energy fuel.

No additional components are required for the reaction to occur, and it’s fully self-powered.

“We were surprised how well it worked in terms of its selectivity – it produced almost no by-products,” said Qian Wang, one of the researchers

“Sometimes things don’t work as well as you expected, but this was a rare case where it actually worked better.”

While the prototype photosheet only measures 20 square centimetres (3 square inches), Wang and his colleagues say it should be relatively easy to scale up without incurring huge costs.

Ultimately, they think these sheets could be produced in large arrays, similar to those on solar farms. What’s more, the resulting formic acid can be stored in a solution, and from there converted into different types of fuel as needed.

“It’s been difficult to achieve artificial photosynthesis with a high degree of selectivity, so that you’re converting as much of the sunlight as possible into the fuel you want, rather than be left with a lot of waste,” says Wang.

 

A team from the same lab was also responsible for developing an ‘artificial leaf’ material in 2019. While the new photosheet behaves in a similar way, it’s more robust and easier to scale up – and it produces fuel that’s more straightforward to store, too (last year’s system created syngas).

That doesn’t mean the new photosheet is ready to go commercial just yet. The researchers need to make the process a lot more efficient first; they are also experimenting with different catalysts that may be able to produce different solar fuels.

“Storage of gaseous fuels and separation of by-products can be complicated – we want to get to the point where we can cleanly produce a liquid fuel that can also be easily stored and transported,” said researcher Erwin Reisner.

Photosynthesis is a biochemical process used by plants and other organisms to convert sunlight, CO2 and water into sugar, that also releases oxygen as a byproduct. But manmade activities such as deforestation, farming and the production of toxic chemicals are killing the life-giving plants that create this process and preventing them from sucking away CO2.

In other words, if we protect soils, oceans and forests, as well as reduce our use of CO2 emitting fossil fuels, we have a greater chance at avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Take Action

We are killing the plants and organisms that have this phenomenal power to take CO2 out of our oceans and atmosphere and create oxygen.

You can play a part by switching your energy supplier to one that provides renewables only. You can switch banks, savings, pensions and investments to ones that do not prop up climate damaging industries. You can use products that do not contain chemicals that are destroying plankton and other life giving organisms in the ocean. There are so many ways we can all help.

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