Artificial photosynthesis to create clean energy

One of the great challenges of the modern era is to drag humankind away from powering the world with fossil fuels. Fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide which causes global warming which in turn damages the planet making life harder for both humans and animals.

Artificial photosynthesis
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Artificial photosynthesis. Diagram: Royal Society of Chemistry.

In a significant step towards humankind’s reliance on fossil fuels, scientists at Cambridge University have developed what they describe as an “artificial leaf” which converts sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into a carbon-neutral fuel. The process converts these elements into oxygen and formate, a liquid. Formate can be stored and used in a fuel cell to produce power. It can also be converted into hydrogen which can fuel home boilers.

Artificial leaves, it is suggested, could be used alongside solar panels. Solar panels are more efficient at present in converting the energy that reaches them into energy that can be used in homes. The artificial leaf device can convert about one percent of the energy that reaches it whereas solar cells convert 15 to 20 percent.

The device works by the sun’s light impacting upon a panel containing a semi-conductor powder which absorbs the light. This excites electrons which join carbon dioxide and proteins from the water creating liquid formic acid.

Before the device is judged to be feasible it has to become more efficient. They are hopeful that it will produce a more sustainable and practical solar fuel production method.

An advantage of the artificial leaf is that it is scalable. It can be deployed easily and doesn’t require “complex substrates and it doesn’t cost much to make, so it’s possible to actually use it on a large scale”, said Tapas Mallik of the University of Exeter who was not involved in the study.

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