Artificial photosynthesis could drive production of hydrogen

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Researchers are hoping to create hydrogen with energy derived from photocatalysts designed to replicate photosynthesis.

It is thought that this method of harnessing the sun’s energy will be far more efficient than existing solar converters.

The £800,000 research project, funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), will be undertaken by the University of East Anglia with colleagues from the universities of Leeds and Cambridge.

In a statement, lead researcher Prof Julea Butt, from UEA’s school of chemistry and school of biological sciences, said: ‘Reserves of fossil fuels are dwindling, and fuel prices are rising, so it’s really vital that we look to renewable energy supplies.

‘Many renewable energy supplies, such as sunlight, wind and the waves, remain largely untapped resources. This is mainly due to the challenges that exist in converting these energy forms into fuels from which energy can be released on demand — for example, when we want to switch on a light, boil water, play computer games, or drive a car.

‘We have been inspired by natural plant processes. During plant photosynthesis, fuels are made naturally from the energy in sunlight.

‘Light absorption by the green chlorophyll pigments generates an energised electron that is directed, along chains of metal centres, to catalysts that make sugars.

‘We will build a system for artificial photosynthesis by placing tiny solar panels on microbes. These will harness sunlight and drive the production of hydrogen, from which the technologies to release energy on demand are well advanced.

‘We imagine that our photocatalysts will prove versatile and that with slight modification they will be able to harness solar energy for the manufacture of carbon-based fuels, drugs and fine chemicals.’

Butt stressed, however, that the research is in its infancy.

‘At this point we cannot sensibly gauge the volume of H2 that will be produced per unit time, and as a consequence, we’re not able to define the method of capture that will be most appropriate,’ Butt told The Engineer via email.