A chemist from Florida just found a way to trigger photosynthesis -- the natural way plants convert carbon dioxide into fuel -- in a synthetic material. This new process could simultaneously clean the air and produce energy.
[Image Source: UCF]
University of Central Florida professor Fernando Uribe-Romo developed the breakthrough. For years, scientists have been looking for a way to make visible light trigger photosynthesis. While UV rays are the best option, they only make up about 4 percent of light Earth receives from the sun. The visible light range makes up most of the sun's rays. However, the materials that can effectively pick up these waves for the process are expensive. While platinum, rhenium, and iridium are all great choices, Uribe-Romo noted they're all too pricey.
He opted for titanium compounded with organic molecules that act as antennae for light. Those "light harvesting" molecules can be tailored to absorb specific lengths and colors of light. He and his team fine-tuned the process to the color blue. They built a blue LED photoreactor -- seen below -- to trigger the reaction. The air became cleaner and the CO2 resulted in formate and formamides -- types of solar fuels.
[Image Source: UCF/BERNARD WILCHUSKY]
"Tailoring materials that will absorb a specific color of light is very difficult from the scientific point of view, but from the societal point of view we are contributing to the development of a technology that can help reduce greenhouse gases," said Uribe-Romo.
The ultimate goal would be to upscale the technology. Homeowners could one day have shingles made out of the material. Those shingles could both produce clean air for the neighborhood and produce the energy needed to power homes. It could even work in a more corporate setting.
"The idea would be to set up stations that capture large amounts of CO2, like next to a power plant," said Uribe-Romo. "The gas would be sucked into the station, go through the process and recycle the greenhouse gases while producing energy that would be put back into the power plant."
The global concentration of atmospheric CO2 is the highest in history.
In 2013, the global concentration of atmospheric CO2 reached 400 parts per million for the first time ever, according to NASA data from Mauna Loa Observatory. Even since researchers began recording atmospheric carbon dioxide, the amount has increased by nearly 25 percent.
Despite minimal decline and stagnating CO2 figures, the threat posed by high carbon dioxide levels continues to worry scientists.
"Passing the 400 mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 ppm and much higher levels," said NASA's Michael Gunson in 2013. Gunson serves as manager for NASA's Global Change & Energy Program. "These were the targets for 'stabilization' suggested not too long ago. The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down. It should be a psychological tripwire for everyone."
As CO2 rises, the effects of photosynthesis get reduced despite the plants still operating at the same rate. In short, more plants mean more photosynthesis. More photosynthesis means less atmospheric CO2 and more oxygen as a result. Hopefully, Uribe-Romo's synthetic photosynthesis can aid in these vital natural processes.
To watch professor Uribe-Romo talk more about the project, check out the video below:
The findings are published in Journal of Materials Chemistry A.