A new avenue of energy production is on the horizon with a breakthrough in ‘artificial photosynthesis’ that is more efficient than nature’s version. Humans would not be here without natural photosynthesis, and its process may help us reduce our impact on Earth.
The science and other stuff to know
Over 3 billion years ago, the first photosynthetic organisms evolved, transforming the Earth’s atmosphere into an oxygen-rich bubble. Using sunlight as energy, these cyanobacteria created sugary meals by rearranging carbon dioxide and water molecules and exhaling oxygen as a byproduct. Instead of producing energy in the form of carbohydrates, artificial photosynthesis could produce fuels needed in our everyday lives, such as ethanol and methane.
Six chemists at the University of Chicago used amino acids to engineer artificial photosynthesis. Tinkering with these complex reactions, Wenbun Lin and his team improved the efficiency of both halves of the reaction by adding amino acids. These chemists were the first to add these molecules as a solution.
The supply of fossil fuels is finite and diminishing at a rapid rate. Eighty percent of the world’s energy is supplied by fossil fuels, including oil and natural gas. Renewable sources, such as wind and solar, only account for less than 13 percent of the energy consumption in the U.S. Additionally, fossil fuels account for 74 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, based on data from the EPA. Nature needs our help. It can never supply the amount of energy we need for daily life.
“The biggest challenge many people don’t realize is that even nature has no solution for the amount of energy we use,” Lin said in a University of Chicago press release, which houses the photosynthesis study. As a result, he adds, “we will have to do better than nature, and that’s scary.”
The plant’s photosynthesis version is ineffective enough to meet our energy consumption needs. Luckily, this innovative artificial system is better than all the previous ones by order of magnitude, or, in other words, 10 times more efficient than past adaptations of the reaction. Moreover, scientists now understand the artificial system on a molecular level like never before.
Though the widespread use is still far from a reality, this photosynthesis advancement could help as a renewable energy source and be applied to other chemical reactions, such as pharmaceuticals. In addition, this new direction gives scientists another possible solution for our energy demands as humans continue to impact the climate with fossil fuel emissions negatively.