Six chemists from the University of Chicago have developed a new artificial photosynthesis system ten times more productive than existing ones - it could provide us with a sustainable and more efficient way to produce energy from sunlight.
The artificial photosynthesis process uses light to convert carbon dioxide into fuel. It produces organic molecules from simple inorganic molecules thanks to solar energy: the photosynthesis process occurs when light energy is converted into organic matter, such as glucose. Plants use photosynthesis to create their own food.
An artificial photosynthesis
For the past two centuries, humans have relied on fossil fuels for a powerhouse of energy. Hundreds of millions of years of photosynthesis enclosed in a comfortable and energy-dense substance. But availability is limited and the consumption of fossil fuels has a huge negative impact on the Earth's climate.
For this reason, scientists are studying "artificial photosynthesis" as a method of creating fuels: an extremely difficult process because it requires an alteration of the chemical composition of the plant, which is very complex.
The new study published in Nature Catalysis (I link it here) shows a new system of artificial photosynthesis much more productive than previous versions. While normal photosynthesis turns carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates, artificial photosynthesis could create ethanol, methane, or other fuel sources.
"This is something that has never been done before," he said Wenbin Lin, professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and senior author of the study.
How the process works
Lin and his colleagues introduced something that had never been incorporated into today's artificial photosynthesis systems: amino acids. This addition made improvements to both halves of the reaction: the process that breaks up water and the one that adds electrons and protons to carbon dioxide.
The performance obtained still has ample room for improvement: artificial photosynthesis is still a long way from producing enough fuel to be used on a large scale. "There is still a lot to improve to produce enough methane for our consumption."
In addition to fuel, however, the discovery may already be used for numerous other large-scale chemical reactions. The production of everyday objects, such as drugs and nylon, would require only minimal quantities of starting materials.
"Many of these fundamental processes are the same," Lin says. "If you develop good chemistry, they can be incorporated into many systems."