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Scientists find new way to turn sunlight into fuel

News Agencies | Updated on: 4 September 2018, 14:12 IST

While solar power is an efficient alternative to all the non-renewable resources, Scientists have been working hard to discover new and more effective processes of extracting it.

The quest to find new ways to harness solar power has taken a step forward after researchers successfully split water into hydrogen and oxygen by altering the photosynthetic machinery in plants.

Photosynthesis is the process plants use to convert sunlight into energy. Oxygen is produced as a by-product of photosynthesis when the water absorbed by plants is 'split'. It is one of the most important reactions on the planet because it is the source of nearly all of the world's oxygen. Hydrogen which is produced when the water is split could potentially be a green and unlimited source of renewable energy.

A new study used semi-artificial photosynthesis to explore new ways to produce and store solar energy. They used natural sunlight to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen using a mixture of biological components and manmade technologies.

According to the researchers, the findings can now be used to revolutionise the systems used for renewable energy production. The method used by them also managed to absorb more solar light than natural photosynthesis.
Katarzyna Soko, one of the researchers, said, "Natural photosynthesis is not efficient because it has evolved merely to survive so it makes the bare minimum amount of energy needed - around 1-2 per cent of what it could potentially convert and store."

Artificial photosynthesis has been around for decades but it has not yet been successfully used to create renewable energy because it relies on the use of catalysts, which are often expensive and toxic. This means it can't yet be used to scale up findings on an industrial level.

The Cambridge research is a part of the emerging field of semi-artificial photosynthesis which aims to overcome the limitations of fully artificial photosynthesis by using enzymes to create the desired reaction.
The team of 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. 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," Soko explained.

According to the researchers, 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.
The research published in Nature Energy journal.


First published: 4 September 2018, 14:12 IST