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Scientists Develop Artificial Photosynthesis System That Can Perform Fuel Generation

Once completed, these "solar fuel tiles" could be the leaves of a complex farm that uses sunlight to generate fuel.

It's been all around us; this idea to generate energy as nature does. This is a complex system that scientists have been trying to copy for numerous years and that is to use sunlight to generate fuel and power our homes and vehicles from CO2 and water. It truly does sound like a dream, and a group of researchers has dedicated their time and effort to build an artificial version of a leaf that can perform photosynthesis.

Their work on making artificial photosynthesis possible might enable us to generate completely renewable energy from the CO2 in our atmosphere.

Scientists Develop Artificial Photosynthesis System That Can Perform Fuel Generation
Source: Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab

Heinz Frei and his team developed this system with the use of nano-sized tubes in the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. As of now, it seems that it is capable of performing the needed steps for the fuel-generating reaction.

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Their design makes the flow of protons from the interior space of the tube to the outside possible. This means that they flow from where they are generated from splitting water molecules to where they combine with CO2 and electrons to form fuel. Previously, researchers had problems with the fast proton flow, which is crucial for efficiently harnessing sunlight energy to form a fuel.

Scientists Develop Artificial Photosynthesis System That Can Perform Fuel Generation
Source: Heinz Frei and Zosia Rostomian/Berkeley Lab

As of now, that fuel is carbon monoxide, but the team's goal is to produce methanol. 

Having made the tubes that are needed for the photosynthetic tasks, the team will begin testing the complete system. The individual unit of the system is planned to be small square "solar fuel tiles". These will contain billions of nanoscale tubes

Scientists Develop Artificial Photosynthesis System That Can Perform Fuel Generation
Source: Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab

Team leader Frei states, "There are two challenges that have not yet been met. One of them is scalability. If we want to keep fossil fuels in the ground, we need to be able to make energy in terawatts – an enormous amount of fuel. And, you need to make a liquid hydrocarbon fuel so that we can actually use it with the trillions of dollars’ worth of existing infrastructure and technology.

The team hopes that these tiles could tackle the hardships that this type of technology still does face today.

He adds that once such a model is made, generating solar fuel out of individual tiles could proceed directly. "We, as basic scientists, need to deliver a tile that works, with all questions about its performance settled. And engineers in industry know-how to connect these tiles. When we’ve figured out square inches, they’ll be able to make square miles."

For a detailed explanation of their work, you can read their paper that was published in Advanced Functional Materials

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