Artificial Photosynthesis Breakthrough Shows Plants Are Best, but We’re Catching Up

Artificial photosynthesis offers huge potential if it can be taken out of the lab

Plants, algae and bacterias have perfected the harvesting of light from the sun over millennia.

Autor*in Tristan Rayner, 11.15.17

Plants, algae and bacterias have perfected the harvesting of light from the sun over millennia.

Photosynthesis, the process of turning light into chemical energy, was discovered in the 18th century – the beautifully simple equation of light plus carbon dioxide and water, equals energy in, oxygen out.

But despite numerous breakthroughs, we still don’t fully understand how this process works – even if we make use of it in a variety of ways.

Physicists talk about complex quantum mechanics tunnelling, while biologists and chemists are in agreement over elements of the process, but aren’t completely sure they’ve come to a conclusive understanding of it as a whole. With sunlight cheap, abundant, and clean, attempting to replicate the process of  photosynthesis to generate energy is a hot research topic.

Artificial photosynthesis research was started as far back as 1912 when Italian chemist Giacomo Ciamician started a push towards understanding photosynthesis.

Research over the decades since has led to some gains, mostly using expensive catalysts, but these aren’t durable and not close to being cost-effective.

New technology developments might be able to change all that.

A self-contained and inexpensive patented prototype has been built by German-based researchers, with the findings published in the journal Nature.

Taking the lead from plants, the new photosynthesis design uses a solar cell together with an electrolyser to split water and form hydrogen fuel, plus oxygen.

Out of the Lab and Into the Sunshine

The focus for the prototype, built by Dr. Bugra Turan and a team of researchers at Forschungszentrum Jülich, one of Europe’s largest research centres, is to take current research out of the lab and put it into a useful design that can be used in practice.

It’s inexpensive, doesn’t use rare materials, and it could finally lead to commercial breakthroughs of artificial photosynthesis for creating fuel, vital for energy security.

Dr Turan and the team are continuing to push to build scalable working units to take the tech to where it’s useful.

The self-contained design allows for units to be linked together to create effectively large surface areas to capture sunlight, creating more fuel.

“To date, photoelectrochemical water splitting has only ever been tested on a laboratory scale,” explains Dr Turan. “The individual components and materials have been improved, but nobody has actually tried to achieve a real application.”

He said the work is important for the renewable energy mix, to continue to improve stable energy supply.

“Large-scale artificial photosynthesis can be one option to tackle this task since it can convert the sun’s energy directly into chemical energy – such as hydrogen,” said Dr Turan.

In order to further boost viability, Turan’s team will continue working on a new project to consolidate the design.

“From the start of 2017, a large publicly-funded research project has started on this topic […] The main task is the demonstration of photoelectrochemical water-splitting at scale for more than 5,000 hrs without degradation.”

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