multicolored trees at autumn avenue in the park Serghei StarusSerghei Starus

Housing innovators continue to stretch the bounds of energy performance to be net zero or even net positive and will need to go further afield with new technologies as codes and regulations demand even better performance. Here, scientists are breaking through on an artificial photosynthesis that would be a game changer for renewable energy.

Scientists here have found a way to 're-wire' photosynthesis so that it can split water into hydrogen and oxygen much more efficiently than is presently possible.

Their model system, described 4 September in the journal Nature Energy, paves the way for new methods of producing sustainable fuels in future.

The model the researchers have developed uses two complementary light-absorbing substances – a naturally-occurring protein and a synthetic dye – in tandem and wires them to a catalyst. This catalyst, hydrogenase, takes the energy from the absorbed solar light and uses it to split water to produce hydrogen.

Hydrogen is of particular interest as a potential sustainable fuel as it can be transformed into a renewable, non-polluting and zero-emission energy resource.

In addition, the researchers (including collaborators at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany) say that now they have demonstrated that their novel energy conversion platform works, it could be developed further for use in a range of ways – for example, converting carbon dioxide into liquid fuels like butanol, a potential future 'green gasoline'.

"This is a milestone in semi-artificial photosynthesis," says Professor of Energy & Sustainability Erwin Reisner about this work, much of which was carried out by his PhD student Katarzyna Sokół. "It overcomes many difficult challenges associated with integrating synthetic materials with biology, and gives us a bigger toolbox for developing future semi-artificial systems for energy conversion."

Photosynthesis is the naturally-occurring energy-conversion mechanism by which plants make food. It is a chemical process in which plants use sunlight to fuel the conversion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into sugars that their cells can use for energy. It also creates oxygen as a by-product.

Scientists working in the field of renewable energy are interested in photosynthesis as it is a way to store sunlight in chemical energy carriers. However, natural photosynthesis has limitations as plants are focused on converting carbon dioxide into sugars, like glucose, rather than into a useful fuel for humankind. So researchers are developing a new branch of science called semi-artificial photosynthesis to overcome Nature’s shortcomings.

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