Bionic Leaf Turns Sunlight Into Liquid Fuel 10 Times Faster Than Nature
By Tim Radford
Scientists in the U.S. claim to have beaten nature at its own game. They have created a “bionic leaf" that exploits sunlight to create biomass—and they say their invention is now 10 times more effective than an oak or maple leaf.
Two separate laboratories at Harvard University have co-operated to devise, enhance and test a system that uses sunlight to split water molecules and feed the hydrogen to bacteria that then produce liquid fuels. The next task is to scale up the experiment to produce carbon neutral fuels to combat climate change.
“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system," Daniel Nocera, a leading researcher in renewable energy who is professor of energy at Harvard said. “Before, people were using photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system and we've gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature."
Photosynthesis was perfected by the plant world more than 3 billion years of evolution. It drives the entire living world and it is the primary source of all fossil fuels.
Climate change became a problem only when humans started to extract ancient sunshine in the form of coal, oil and natural gas, stored in the Carboniferous rocks and put it back in the atmosphere.
Just as wood fires from felled timber make no difference to the atmosphere's carbon dioxide levels—because the same forest that shelters the fallen tree will absorb it again—so biofuels converted from surplus maize or sugarcane should, in theory, make no difference to global warming.
So the idea of what the Harvard team call “bionic leaf 2.0" is an attractive one. It could deliver liquid fuels in convenient form that would make no difference to the planet's overall carbon budget. In effect, it could bypass the vegetation stage.
Chemists and engineers the world over are racing to exploit human ingenuity and deliver brilliant solutions, including artificial leaves that can capture carbon dioxide. The challenge is to do so effectively, cheaply and on a massive scale.
Which is why Prof. Nocera's lab teamed up with microbiologists led by biochemist and systems biologist Pamela Silver, of Harvard Medical School.
The scientists report in Science journal that they have devised a hybrid system based on cobalt-phosphorus alloy catalyst partnered with bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha, which splits water into oxygen and hydrogen at low voltages.
The microbes consume the free hydrogen and, in the presence of oxygen and carbon dioxide, begin some organic chemistry. So far, the system has made isobutanol and isopentanol and even a bio-plastic precursor product.
The Harvard scientists say their bionic leaf converts solar energy to biomass with an efficiency of 10 percent. The fastest-growing plants do the same with an efficiency of 1 percent.
What works in a laboratory may be tricky to translate into large-scale production, but the researchers are confident they have something that works.
Prof. Nocera said: “It's an important discovery. It says we can do better than photosynthesis. But I also want to bring this technology to the developing world as well.
“If you think about it, photosynthesis is amazing. It takes sunlight, water and air—and then look at a tree. That's exactly what we did, but we can do it significantly better, because we turn all that energy into a fuel."
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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