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Artificial photosynthesis as an alternative to fossil fuels

The use of solar radiation in order to reduce energy could probably end all energy problems that plague the planet. Affronted with already known proposals such as solar panels or photovoltaic cells, researchers worldwide are betting for artificial photosynthesis as an alternative.

CRISTINA JIMÉNEZ | 24 april 2009

The last initiative known to the public is the programme ‘Artificial Leaf’, launched by James Barber, from the Imperial College London. With a budget of five million Euros, the project, led by the veteran British scientist, is trying to reproduce the intimate mechanism of photosynthesis in order to encourage energy production.


Foto: tk-link
Barber’s proposal is coated with a notable conceptual elegance. It is all about using two existing resources in nature as a source to feed the system, solar radiation and water, both inexhaustible at human scale; and use them in the same way as green plants, changing only the final objective. As explained by Barber himself, it means changing the machinery to find products with energetic interest. “We do not want to make sugar or cellulose like plants do; we want to use hydrogen obtained from water in order to convert discarded carbon dioxide into ethanol and methanol”, he clarifies.

Turning the light on

Photosythesis is the process through which plants with chlorophyll transform inorganic matter absorbed from the soil into organic matter which they need for their development. The source of energy that ‘activates’ the process is solar radiation. If one could understand the intimate nature of this process, sustains Barber, one could design a system capable of using the light from the sun “to produce energy”. This is what the British scientist and hundreds of colleagues in different centres of the world call artificial photosynthesis. 

Barber initiated his research in the so called Photo system II in 1995, responsible of the rapture of water molecules in their most basic components. Years later, in 2004, scientists from his lab published in the Science journal the first detailed structure of such a system.

The description of the structure, which currently continues to characterize, opens, according to Barber, a wide fan of possibilities amongst them the secrete of success of artificial photosynthesis. In essence, to achieve a catalyst that mimics on a small scale the functions of the photo system II. “Currently the biggest difficulties we have are found in the miniaturization of all the components, in particular photovoltaic mini-cells that one would need”, he thinks. Barber is confident that this is just a hurdle that can be overcome in the next 10 years.  

Catalysts

The United States has several programmes similar to the British one. One of them, with which Barber works closely, is HELIOS, from the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory (LBNL) and from the University of California. HELIOS was initiated by the actual US Secretary of State of Energy, Steve Chu, when he was director of the LBNL.

Daniel Nocera, scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), leader of the programme The Solar Revolution Project, also works along this same line. The Science journal gathered in Agost 2008, the description of a catalyst that facilitates the reaction of the rupture of water molecules in hydrogen oxygen and gaseous,

Judging form Barber, Nocera and his colleagues’ achievements are a significant step for the generation of energy that is clean and free of carbon at a grand scale. “[The catalyst described by Nocera] opens the doors to the development of new technologies for the production of energy that satisfies the high levels of existing demands”, concludes the British scientist.

Working with a bio-inspired systemThe energetic necessities of the planet are above 14 TW annually. The growth of the emerging economies (China, India and Brazil) could increase the figure to 30 TW in the year 2050. Solar radiation, estimated to have a production potential of 100,000 TW per year, continues to be one of the biggest alternatives for energy generation. It is in this context, and due to a better understanding day by day of the so called bio-inspired systems based on nanotechnologies, that artificial photosynthesis is gaining its own space.

“Photosynthesis is like the Big Bang in evolution”, defends James Barber, one of the greatest worldwide experts in this matter. “Thanks to it we have evolution of life on Earth as we know it today”. And it could be an “excellent alternative” to fossil fuels.

“It has taken nature one million years to produce fossil fuels which we burn in one year alone”, he continues. If the right formula is found, solar radiation on Earth, would provide in just one hour sufficient energy to supply the necessary worldwide energy of one year.


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