Thursday, 11 August 2011

What we can learn from trees - artificial photosynthesis

We can learn a lot from trees. They produce food and fuel out of almost nothing, from just sunlight, water and carbon dioxide and scientists believe it is time for us to harness this almost magical process.

This month, the inaugural Towards Global Artificial Photosynthesis conference will be held at Lord Howe Island. It will include world experts in artificial photosynthesis, lawyers, ethicists, photovoltaic specialists, quantum physicists and school students, who will gather to discuss the latest research on artificial photosynthesis and plan for the future.

Among those attending the conference will be Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Daniel Nocera, who earlier this year announced a prototype ‘artificial leaf’ device that is about the size of a playing card. The robust silicone device is coated in a catalyst that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. The catalyst is made of cheap, widely available materials - nickel and cobalt, which is great news for future development. Using only the sun and bucket of water, the device could supply a house in a developing country with enough electricity for one day. The next step for Nocera is to find a way to store the hydrogen and oxygen and recombine it in a fuel cell for use at night. This kind of technology could essentially make any house its own power station.

Let’s hope the conference will bring about more extraordinary developments. Though an extremely complicated process, artificial photosynthesis could have a huge impact on the human race; it could provide a clean source of fuel, thereby reducing the need for fossil fuels and it could provide carbohydrates for basic food which could ultimately end hunger.

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