Taking a cue from plants, crafty researchers have cracked the code to create hydrogen fuel via sunlight.
Looking to Mother Nature, scientists at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have engineered a way to mimic what lowly green plants have managed to do for billions of years: use sunlight to convert the useless into the useful.
Plants do this through the deceptively simple process of photosynthesis, which combines water, carbon dioxide and solar rays to render carbohydrate sugars they can use, with the only waste byproduct being the oxygen that all animals need to live. (Convenient, no?)
“Artificial photosynthesis” would be a high-tech remix of this classic tune to transform carbon dioxide — a waste byproduct all animals create — into hydrogen, an easily stored and clean-burning fuel.
As the experts at Berkley Labs explain:
Earth receives more energy in one hour’s worth of sunlight than all of humanity uses in an entire year… While artificial photosynthesis can be used to generate electricity, fuels can be a more effective means of storing and transporting energy. The goal is an artificial photosynthesis system that’s at least 10 times more efficient than natural photosynthesis.
In short, the Berkley Labs process uses a light-absorbing semi-conductor material just as plants use the green chlorophyll in their leaves. (Remember high-school science?)
While it may take some time to develop a car that can simply be coated with “artificial photosynthesis” paint and self-generate hydrogen fuel directly from our carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, that would certainly be one ideal goal for such technology.
You can read the full report at the Berkley Labs website if you so choose.
Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory