By Prarthana Mitra
Scientists at the University of Cambridge may have come the closest to turning water into wine. A team of researchers has managed to make crucial fuel from it, through a semi-artificial photosynthesis system.
Like plants use water to convert sunlight into food, the study was able to demonstrate how hydrogen fuel can be extracted from water (constituting two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen).
Harnessing the fullest potential of photosynthesis
Oxygen is produced as a by-product of photosynthesis by ‘splitting’ water into its two components. According to the scientists, the hydrogen left behind could potentially be a green and unlimited source of renewable energy.
Using a semi-artificial photosynthesis system, the team discovered new ways to store natural sunlight and produce solar energy.
“Natural photosynthesis is not efficient because it has evolved merely to survive so it makes the bare minimum amount of energy needed – around 1-2 per cent of what it could potentially convert and store,” said Katarzyna Soko, a PhD student at University of Cambridge.
An accidental and interesting discovery
The process did not just increase the volume of energy produced but also managed to reactivate a process in the algae that had been dormant for aeons. “Hydrogenase is an enzyme present in algae that is capable of reducing protons into hydrogen,” said Soko, an author of the study.
“During evolution this process has been deactivated because it wasn’t necessary for survival but we successfully managed to bypass the inactivity to achieve the reaction we wanted — splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen,” she said.
The future of fuel
Although this mechanism isn’t exactly novel, artificial photosynthesis has never been successful in creating renewable energy because it relies on the use of toxic and expensive catalysts, botanical factors and complex technologies. That means it needs ample funds and infrastructure to scale up production for industrial application.
The findings of the study, published in the journal Nature Energy, has enormous implications on the future of fuel. Producing hydrogen fuel in this way can be a gamechanger in the new renewable systems and sustainable models to harness solar energy.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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