Photosynthesis process could create solar fuel

sunset and transmission line JL IMG_0753Argonne National Laboratory, headquartered in Argonne, is ­researching photosynthesis and the creation of solar fuel. Refined by nature over a billion years, photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide (CO2), water and energy from the sun into chemical energy. It has given life to the planet, providing an environment suitable for the smallest, most primitive organism all the way to our own species.

While scientists have been ­studying and mimicking the natural ­phenomenon in the laboratory for years, understanding how to replicate the chemical process behind it has largely remained a mystery — until now. We are now one step closer to harvesting “solar fuel.”

Lisa M. Utschig, a bioinorganic chemist at Argonne for 20 years, said storing solar energy in chemical bonds such as those found in hydrogen can provide a robust and renewable energy source. Burning hydrogen as fuel ­creates no pollutants.

“We are taking sunlight, which is abundant, and we are using water to make a fuel,” said Utschig, who oversaw the project. “It’s pretty ­remarkable.” Unlike the energy derived from solar panels, which must be used quickly, hydrogen, a solar fuel, can be stored.

Sarah Soltau, a postdoctoral ­fellow at Argonne who conducted much of the research, said “The key finding of Argonne’s most recent research is that we were able to actually watch the processes of electrons going from a light-absorbing molecule to a catalyst that produces solar fuel. This piece of knowledge will help us develop a ­system to work more efficiently than the one we can create now, and, years on, may allow us to replace oil and gas.”

Argonne has been studying photo­synthesis since the 1960s but this ­particular experiment has been ­pursued for about a year. Soltau said scientists may be several years from using these techniques to ­generate storable solar fuels to power cars or households, but that this could be made possible once researchers learn ways to make the process more efficient.

“We need to look at ways to make solar fuel production last longer,” she said. “Right now, the systems don’t have the stability necessary to last weeks or months.”

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