One Step Closer to Eliminating Fossil Fuels
By: Nida Rukhshi, Iris Lee
Ever since researchers realized that one of the most important biological processes on earth – photosynthesis – was not as efficient as it could be, many dedicated their time to the idea of artificial photosynthesis. In fact, researchers from across the world, including US, Japan, and the European Union, have contemplated the process of refining artificial photosynthesis to perfection over the last three decades. Results were mixed; however, no one had succeeded in creating a catalyzer for artificial photosynthesis that would allow researchers to overcome the speed bottleneck of the process.
However, Licheng Sun and his research colleagues from the Department of Chemistry at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, recently managed to solve this bottleneck issue by creating a molecular catalyzer that can oxidize water to oxygen rapidly. In fact, Sun has reported that the KTH has reached over 300 turnovers per second with its newly-equipped artificial photosynthesis. “This is clearly a world record, and a breakthrough regarding a molecular catalyzer in artificial photosynthesis,” remarks Sun, considering that natural photosynthesis reaches about 100 to 400 turnovers per second.
The result, he says, could lay groundwork for other revolutionary advancements. Sun suggests that the catalyzer has far-reaching applications. It can be used to create large-scale facilities for producing hydrogen in the Sahara, to allow direct conversion of solar energy into hydrogen, or to stimulate solar energy conversion to electricity. Professor Sun plans to engage in further research to make these techniques more cost-effective.
Another recent development in the field of artificial photosynthesis is the creation of the first practical artificial leaf. While artificial photosynthesis in the form of an artificial leaf is not a new idea, this venture goes one step further by changing some of the materials and manufacturing processes involved to create a more economically practical project.
The ‘leaf’ consists of a nickel-molybdenum-zinc compound on one side and a cobalt film on the other side, with a sunlight collector in between. When the leaf is placed in water, hydrogen gas and oxygen gas are released from the nickel-molybdenum-zinc side and cobalt side respectively, as the water is broken down into its components. The gases are then used in fuel cells to produce electricity.
Using a nickel-molybdenum-zinc compound to generate the hydrogen gas rather than the more expensive platinum catalyst used in earlier designs is one of the main ways that Daniel G. Nocera, a research team leader at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has made this version of the artificial leaf more economical. Unlike in earlier designs, the materials used in this endeavor are in ample supply and thus more affordable. This project also breaks barriers on the stability front, as it can work for at least 45 hours continuously rather than barely a day, as the earlier models did.
“Nature is powered by photosynthesis, and I think that the future world will be powered by photosynthesis as well in the form of this artificial leaf,” Nocera stated, confident about being able to further improve the cost-efficiency of this project in the future.
The implications of such breakthroughs in artificial photosynthesis are huge. Inexpensive methods of producing hydrogen in large quantities will allow its use as a practical alternative energy source. In time, as further research is conducted, reliance on fossil fuels could be eliminated almost completely. Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBRSC (Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council – which focuses on making new fuels and boosting crop production through improving natural photosynthesis), also explains why funding research such as this is important, stating: “We are facing global challenges in food and energy security that must be addressed. Improving photosynthesis within plants, or externally using synthetic biology, would bring huge benefits.”
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