Monday, April 21, 2014

Artificial Photosynthesis: Clean Energy’s Holy Grail?



Given that unsustainable fossil fuel burning has now endangered our planet’s fragile climate, will artificial photosynthesis based energy generation be the clean and sustainable energy production’s “Holy Grail”? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Given the recent dire UN IPCC irreversible climate change warning, it seems that if humanity can master an energy generating system based on photosynthesis used by plants for millions of years would not only serve as a very viable clean, sustainable and renewable energy production for industrial use but also serve as a viable way of cleaning up the excess carbon dioxide already in the earth’s atmosphere produced by decades of uncontrolled fossil fuel burning. But is there an inherent difficulty of artificial photosynthesis that it is now labeled as the “Holy Grail” of cleaning up the energy generation systems of our industrialized world. 

Joel Ager of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories is just one of the 5 energy research labs in the United States currently working to develop a viable way to replicate photosynthesis in generating energy for industrial use. Their latest prototype is an “artificial leaf” that uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and water to convert it into methanol / methyl alcohol but in a chemical reaction that’s ten times faster than typical plant based reactions found in nature. Once perfected, artificial photosynthesis could provide a truly carbon neutral way to generate electricity to power the wheels of industry. Though this is the latest phase of the development of artificial photosynthesis, research into the concept has been around for a few decades now. 

Back in 1980, “splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen via ordinary sunlight” has been a goal of photochemists finding ways to wean industry from its heavy dependence on crude oil when it comes to energy generation. Michael Gr├Ątzel and his team at Lausanne, Switzerland had devised a system with special catalysts that carries out this process with high efficiency. The catalytic material consists of platinum and ruthenium dioxide deposited on titanium dioxide. A notable feature of the system is that it is effective over long periods, with hydrogen production undiminished after two days of ordinary sunlight exposure.