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In trying to create different fuel sources, like hydrogen and methane, we often still have to rely on processes that end up releasing more greenhouse gases and pollution into the air. So researchers are always looking for new ways to produce more sustainable energy. One way that’s going through development is called “artificial photosynthesis.”
Plants “feed” themselves by transforming sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and usable energy, and scientists are trying to figure out how to replicate this process to make energy for humans to use. Artificial photosynthesis mimics plant photosynthesis, leading to the conversion of solar energy into hydrogen and other fuels (like methane). And it could be way more efficient than some of our other clean energy processes.
“With artificial photosynthesis, there are not fundamental physical limitations,” explains Yulia Puskhar, a biophysicist and professor of physics at Purdue Univerity. “You can very easily imagine a system that is 60% efficient because we already have a precedent in natural photosynthesis. And if we get very ambitious, we could even envision a system of up to 80% efficiency. Photosynthesis is massively efficient when it comes to splitting water, a first step of artificial photosynthesis. Photosystems II proteins in plants do this a thousand times a second. Blink, and it’s done.”
Recently, scientists had a major breakthrough in this area, producing a working prototype of artificial photosynthesis. With this model, scientists figured out how to use sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. To do this, the team designed reaction cells that work like solar panels, each coated with a material to enable a photosynthesis-like chemical reaction. These cells were filled with water and dosed with sunlight. They were able to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The hydrogen gas was then processed and moved into another area to react with CO2, forming methane and water. The water was then moved back into the first part of the prototype.
We use both hydrogen and methane as major fuel sources, so being able to produce them without using natural gas could be a game-changer.