Nature inspires solar fuels

A German-French research team has decoded a key stage in plant photosynthesis. Their discovery could result in the development of environmentally friendly, low-cost synthetic fuels using sunlight and water.

For over three billion years, plants, algae and certain species of bacteria have been using sunlight to split water to produce carbohydrates, which in nature act as solar fuels in living cells. The process of photosyntheis is so clever and efficient that many believe society’s energy supply problems could be solved in the future using a model adopted from nature.

But although the basic reactions involved in photosynthesis have long been known, scientists have had to use expensive materials such as platinum or other rare materials as synthetic catalysts to split water. This has made the large-scale production of renewable energy fuels like hydrogen very expensive or outright impossible.

A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Conversion in Germany and the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA) in France have now made a discovery that could overcome this obstacle. They have developed an insight into the structure of a key stage of plant photosynthesis, in particular on a manganese-calcium complex where the photosynthetic water splitting takes place. Their results could be used to develop bio-inspired catalysts, which would make it possible to produce hydrogen or other types of solar fuels cheaply.

“Synthetic solar fuels open up wide-ranging possibilities for renewable energy technologies, in particular for the transport and infrastructure sectors, which are still reliant on fossil fuels,” says Professor Wolfgang Lubitz, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion. “An efficient light-driven, water splitting catalyst based on common metals such as manganese would represent huge progress here.”

 

Photo credit: walter mason, flickr/Creative Commons

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