Breakthrough in Artificial Photosynthesis Could Herald New Clean Energy Source

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Scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a system that achieves artificial photosynthesis in a way that could change the energy landscape of the future.

“We believe our system is a revolutionary leap forward in the field of artificial photosynthesis,” Peidong Yang, a chemist with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and a lead author on a study of the new system, said in an April 16 news release. “Our system has the potential to fundamentally change the chemical and oil industry in that we can produce chemicals and fuels in a totally renewable way, rather than extracting them from deep below the ground.”

The team’s system, made of nanowires and bacteria to mimic natural photosynthesis, works by capturing carbon dioxide emissions and, using only solar energy, converting them into “valuable chemical products” such as liquid fuels, biodegradable plastics and even the bases for pharmaceuticals.

This is significant in the wider energy and sustainability field largely because carbon emissions are a driving force in climate change. As carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, the atmosphere becomes warmer. The current concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide is the highest it has been in at least three million years, with most scientists agreeing that the burning of fossil fuels (including those used for electricity generation) is a major factor in these emissions.

While other research projects are searching for alternatives to these high-emissions fuel sources, it appears that fossil fuels will remain a part of the energy landscape for some time. Separate projects have worked to sequester carbon emissions before they can be released into the atmosphere, but a major obstacle for these projects is that all that carbon must then be stored.

This new artificial photosynthesis technique therefore represents a significant step forward in that it offers a path for both using carbon before it contributes to rises in atmospheric levels and produces fuel in the process.

“The testing and development of alternative sources of energy is a big win for our planet,” says Duane Gereski, Marketing Director, Starion Energy. “The extensive research and variety of paths now being explored to discover sustainable energy sources bodes well for green energy in the future.”

The DOE Office of Science provided the majority of the funding for the project. A paper describing the system and what the team has achieved using it so far has been published in the journal Nano Letters.

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