The Next Frontier: Artificial Photosynthesis

The ultimate model for clean fuels? (Photo: KQED QUEST)

Amidst all the fretting over the development of solar and wind technology, it hasn’t been lost on some scientists that there are organisms on the planet that have already cracked the renewable energy code: plants.

Photosynthesis is a highly efficient way of converting sunlight to fuel. So why not try to copy them?

That’s a bet that Energy Secretary Steven Chu is taking. Today, the Department of Energy announced $122 million in funding to create the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, a new research hub based in California. The California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab will lead the effort, along with other universities around the state.  Their goal will be to create an “integrated solar energy-to-chemical fuel conversion system” and to make it commercially viable.

Artificial photosynthesis isn’t a new idea. Research has gone on for decades in search of the right chemistry to make it happen. But plant mimicry is no easy task. Last year, I visited the lab of Heinz Frei at LBNL, one of the researchers there working on the chemistry. His big breakthrough was developing a chemical catalyst that speeds up the process of using light to break apart water molecules.  That’s the same thing that plants do, but they create sugar molecules as a result. The sunlight-to-fuel process would create liquid combustible fuels, like benzene.

Finding a way to make these fuels at scale would be a “transformative breakthrough,” according to the Department of Energy, given our current dependence on oil. DOE is making the bet that even if cars and trucks run on electricity in the future, liquid fuels aren’t going away anytime soon.