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Scientists Develop 'Milestone' on Road to Improving Photosynthesis to Produce Renewable Energy

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Scientists are one step closer to developing an energy efficient version of photosynthesis to create renewable energy. Blagoj / CC BY-SA 4.0

Plants, with their ability to turn sunlight directly into energy through photosynthesis, have long been the envy of human energy providers.


Now, scientists have developed what Cambridge University Professor of Energy & Sustainability Erwin Reisner told Newsweek was a "milestone" in "semi-artificial photosynthesis."

Reisner is the lead author in a paper published Monday in Nature Energy with the contribution of scientists from Cambridge and Ruhr University Bochum in Germany that outlined a method for splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen using a mix of biological photosynthesis and human technologies, according to a press release from St. John's College, Cambridge.

There is hope that, if an efficient form of artificial photosynthesis is developed, hydrogen could be an important source of renewable energy that does not emit carbon dioxide.

"Solar energy conversion to produce renewable fuels and chemicals—i.e., solar fuel synthesis—is an important strategy for powering our society in a post-fossil era," Reisner told Newsweek.

Natural photosynthesis has not been directly reproduced to create energy for human use because it is not very efficient.

"Natural photosynthesis is not efficient because it has evolved merely to survive so it makes the bare minimum amount of energy needed – around one-two percent of what it could potentially convert and store," study author and St. John's College PhD student Katarzyna Sokół explained in the press release.

The method Sokół helped develop increases the amount of sunlight that can be converted into energy and stored compared with natural photosynthesis.

However, previous attempts to reproduce photosynthesis artificially have not been scaled up because they require toxic or expensive catalysts.

The researchers' groundbreaking method relies on an important enzyme in algae known as hydrogenase, Newsweek reported.

Sokół explained in the press release that the researchers had been able to resurrect a process algae has stopped doing in nature.

"Hydrogenase is an enzyme present in algae that is capable of reducing protons into hydrogen. During evolution this process has been deactivated because it wasn't necessary for survival but we successfully managed to bypass the inactivity to achieve the reaction we wanted – splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen," she said.

Reisner told Newsweek that the process outlined in the paper was still new and not ready to be reproduced on an industrial scale, but that the scientists involved hoped to refine it and demonstrate its practical use in the future.

"This work overcomes many difficult challenges associated with the integration of biological and organic components into inorganic materials for the assembly of semi-artificial devices and opens up a toolbox for developing future systems for solar energy conversion," he said in the press release.

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

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"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


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