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Renewable Energy

Artificial Photosynthesis Could Be Improved Solar Option

Stefan Steinbauer

The changing of the guard is almost here. As the world looks to ramp down most of its reliance on traditional energy sources like coal and oil over the next few decades, wind and especially solar farms are emerging as the leaders of the coming renewable energy era. In a way, the idyllic 2050 version of the world will function like a highly technologically advanced plant. Solar panels will dot most rooftops and many open fields, harnessing the sun like any flower. But what if there was a better way to do the actual harnessing? 

The current stage of solar technologies has allowed for a cheap form of zero-carbon energy generation, but there’s still much to be done before the field is nearly conquered. The biggest problem at this stage is efficiency. Although a massive deployment of solar panels capable of supporting the world’s energy needs is theoretically possible, the current technology still leaves the vast majority of the sun’s energy on the table. While we’re doing everything on paper to become a planetary flower, the reality is that actual plants are still significantly better at gathering sunlight for themselves. 

Photo Courtesy Purdue University

Because of this, a growing number of industry experts are looking into the possibility of creating an “artificial photosynthesis” alternative to the current industry solar photovoltaic panels standard. “That process is famously inefficient, able to capture only about 20% of the sun’s energy,” noted Purdue University’s Brittany Steff. “Photosynthesis, on the other hand, is radically more efficient; it is capable of storing 60% of the sun’s energy as chemical energy in associated biomolecules.”

Indeed, technologies are constantly improving. Newly developed solar cells have pushed efficiency limits beyond the 20% barrier. But the idea that continued funding and development bring improvement is also true for the progress of artificial photosynthesis. 

“With artificial photosynthesis, there are no fundamental physical limitations,” said Yulia Pushkar, biophysicist, and professor of physics at Purdue’s College of Science. “You can very easily imagine a system that is 60% efficient because we already have a precedent in natural photosynthesis. And if we get very ambitious, we could even envision a system of up to 80% efficiency.”

Photo Courtesy Lucas Vasques

Until now, there had been surprisingly little motivation – public or private – to develop this technology since its emergence roughly a decade ago. A recent Berkeley study may have changed the enthusiasm level.

Researchers made a groundbreaking discovery that drastically improved the lifetime of an active chemical compound essential for mass-producing an infrastructure for artificial photosynthesis. 

As the results became widely known, a renewed government interest appears to have followed: the Department of Energy created the Liquid Sunshine Alliance (LiSA) program to fund the Berkeley operation and others like it. With any luck, these projects will create a future where the world operates as a plant in practice and theory. Hopefully, we will have added efficiency to boot.