Energy leaves for a cleaner future

 By Amanda Saint

A major scientific breakthrough has seen a research team at the Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute create a synthetic leaf that can produce fuels such as methane and gasoline from carbon dioxide, and sunlight by mimicking the natural process of photosynthesis…

The team, led by Peidong Yang, who is co-director of the Kavli Energy NanoScience Institute at Berkeley National Laboratory and a professor of chemistry at the University of California, believe that their breakthrough discovery is a major step forwards in enabling us to use renewable and greener fuels made from sunlight for everything from heating our homes, businesses and public buildings, to running cars and public transport, without emitting any greenhouse gases. Not only will it enable us to cut emissions, it also removes carbon from the air, captures it and turns it into useful chemicals.

In a process that brings together nanotechnology and biology, the machine copies the natural process of photosynthesis, in which plants use sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into sugar for fuel to grow. Using a combination of semiconducting nanowires, genetically-modified bacteria and an inorganic catalyst, the system has enabled the living bacteria cells to convert water and carbon dioxide into methane.

By making slight adaptations to the synthetic photosynthesis process the team is confident that it will be possible to create a whole host of different products that have the potential to help dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions and encourage environmental sustainable. As well as methane, the team has also produced butanol, a component of gasoline and various other biochemical building blocks, using a very similar process.

This Artificial "Leaf" Can Produce Fuels From Carbon Dioxide And Sunlight

This system uses long, nanoscale filaments to turn sunlight into electrons, which the bacteria then use to convert carbon dioxide and water into butanol fuel and more complex molecules such as acetate (a chemical building block) and amorphadiene (which is used to make antimalarial drugs).

The next step in the research is for the team to try and make a completely synthetic system that doesn’t need to use the organic bacteria. It’s hoped that this next iteration will build on the natural process of photosynthesis to create liquid fuels that can last months , or even years, and will eventually be produced on a commercial scale.

Although we won’t have synthetic plants providing the fuel to power and heat our homes for some time to come, the Kavli team has made a significant step forward in making this idea an achievable reality.

about the author
Amanda Saint
Journalist and content writer, specialised in engineering and technology with a focus on environmental sustainability, urbanisation and biotechnology.