Bionic Leaves Could Fuel the World

Trillions - - From The Publisher -

Pho­to­syn­the­sis, that amaz­ing process of na­ture which ex­tracts en­ergy from the com­bi­na­tion of sun, wa­ter, and plant ma­te­ri­als, may just have been co-opted by sci­en­tists to turbo-charge the process and per­haps cre­ate an­other source of clean re­new­able en­er­gies for the planet.

The in­no­va­tion comes from the col­lab­o­ra­tion of two teams of sci­en­tists at Har­vard. One is headed by Dr. Daniel No­cera, Har­vard Uni­ver­sity’s Pat­ter­son Rock­wood Pro­fes­sor of En­ergy. Dr. Pamela Sil­ver, the El­liott T. and Onie H. Adams Pro­fes­sor of Bio­chem­istry and Sys­tems Bi­ol­ogy at Har­vard Med­i­cal School, heads the other one.

The con­cept, dis­closed June 3, 2016, in the jour­nal Sci­ence, com­bines so­lar en­ergy to split wa­ter mol­e­cules into hy­dro­gen and ox­gy­gen and bac­te­ria to eat the hy­dro­gen and con­vert it into bio­fuel. The sim­ple twostep process pro­duces liq­uid fu­els cleanly and with min­i­mal waste. These bio­fu­els can then be used to en­er­gize many forms of power gen­er­a­tion de­vices.

While the so­lu­tion is sim­ple, the in­no­va­tion process to get to this point was far from that. In No­cera’s de­scrip­tion of the what it took to achieve the nec­es­sary pho­to­syn­the­sis ef­fi­cien­cies and re­ported re­sults, a new cobalt-phos­pho­rous al­loy cat­a­lyst had to be cre­ated. That de­sign pro­duced a cat­a­lyst which does not in­clude re­ac­tive oxy­gen species as a by-prod­uct, which in turn al­lowed the use of lower volt­ages in the elec­tri­cally-driven pho­to­syn­the­sis re­ac­tion. Lower volt­age means higher ef­fi­cien­cies, and in fact the lat­est pub­lished test re­sults show this sys­tem can con­vert so­lar en­ergy to rel­a­tively clean burn­able biomass with 10 per­cent ef­fi­ciency. Mother Na­ture can­not get any­where near that, with even the fastest grow­ing plants demon­strat­ing only around 1 per­cent ef­fi­ciency.

In the long run, the most sig­nif­i­cant part of these in­no­va­tions is that the bio­fu­els cre­ated, which now in­clude the pro­duc­tion of isobu­tanol and isopen­tanol as burn­able by-prod­ucts, can do all this with very low in­cre­men­tal car­bon emis­sions. There is still a long way to go to make this a com­mer­cial re­al­ity, but that it ex­ists at all should give those most con­cerned about longterm cli­mate change some rea­son for hope.

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