Researchers used a technique called semi-artificial photosynthesis
Scientists at the University of Cambridge have revealed they may have discovered the key to creating an “unlimited source of renewable energy”, in a game-changing breakthrough that could revolutionize solar energy production.
The discovery is basically scientists improving on photosynthesis, the ancient process plants use to convert sunlight into energy, by harnessing human technology with plants.
The researchers used a technique called semi-artificial photosynthesis, which was performed by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Hydrogen, which is produced when the water is split, is a complete green and infinite source of energy.
“Natural photosynthesis is not efficient because it has evolved merely to survive so it makes the bare minimum amount of energy needed – around one to two percent of what it could potentially convert and store”, said St John’s College PhD student Katarzyna Sokol
According to the DS: Researchers did this by reactivating a mysterious enzyme present in algae, that can reduce protons into hydrogen.
And in a world first, their method managed to absorb more solar light than natural photosynthesis – bettering nature.
Artificial photosynthesis has been around for decades but it has not yet been successfully used to create renewable energy.
This is because it relies on the use of catalysts, which are often expensive and toxic.
Dr Erwin Reisner, Head of the Reisner Laboratory, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and one of the paper’s authors, described the research as a “milestone”.
“This work overcomes many difficult challenges associated with the integration of biological and organic components into inorganic materials for the assembly of semi-artificial devices and opens up a toolbox for developing future systems for solar energy conversion”, he said.
Researchers not only improved on the amount of energy produced and stored, they managed to reactivate a process in the algae that has been dormant for millennia.
“Hydrogenase is an enzyme present in algae that is capable of reducing protons into hydrogen”, said Ms Sokol.
“During evolution, this process has been deactivated because it wasn’t necessary for survival but we successfully managed to bypass the inactivity to achieve the reaction we wanted – splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen,” she said.
Ms. Sokol hopes the findings will enable new innovative model systems for solar energy conversion to be developed.
“It’s exciting that we can selectively choose the processes we want, and achieve the reaction we want which is inaccessible in nature.”
“The approach could be used to couple other reactions together to see what can be done, learn from these reactions and then build synthetic, more robust pieces of solar energy technology,” she added.