Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Synthetic Photosynthesis?

This is another of the scientific breakthroughs that could lead to some great innovations:

For decades, farmers have been trying to find ways to get more energy out of the sun.

In natural photosynthesis, plants take in solar energy and carbon dioxide and then convert it to oxygen and sugars. The oxygen is released to the air and the sugars are dispersed throughout the plant — like that sweet corn we look for in the summer. Unfortunately, the allocation of light energy into products we use is not as efficient as we would like. Now engineering researchers at the University of Cincinnati are doing something about that.

The researchers are finding ways to take energy from the sun and carbon from the air to create new forms of biofuels, thanks to a semi-tropical frog species. Their results have just been published online in “Artificial Photosynthesis in Ranaspumin-2 Based Foam” (March 5, 2010) in the journal “Nano Letters.” (It will be a cover story for the print edition in the fall.)

Research Assistant Professor David Wendell, student Jacob Todd and College of Engineering and Applied Science Dean Carlo Montemagno co-authored the paper, based on research in Montemagno’s lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Their work focused on making a new artificial photosynthetic material which uses plant, bacterial, frog and fungal enzymes, trapped within a foam housing, to produce sugars from sunlight and carbon dioxide.

“The advantage for our system compared to plants and algae is that all of the captured solar energy is converted to sugars, whereas these organisms must divert a great deal of energy to other functions to maintain life and reproduce,” says Wendell. “Our foam also uses no soil, so food production would not be interrupted, and it can be used in highly enriched carbon dioxide environments, like the exhaust from coal-burning power plants, unlike many natural photosynthetic systems.”

He adds, “In natural plant systems, too much carbon dioxide shuts down photosynthesis, but ours does not have this limitation due to the bacterial-based photo-capture strategy.”

“This new technology establishes an economical way of harnessing the physiology of living systems by creating a new generation of functional materials that intrinsically incorporates life processes into its structure,” says Dean Montemagno. “Specifically in this work it presents a new pathway of harvesting solar energy to produce either oil or food with efficiencies that exceed other biosolar production methodologies. More broadly it establishes a mechanism for incorporating the functionality found in living systems into systems that we engineer and build.”

The next step for the team will be to try to make the technology feasible for large-scale applications like carbon capture at coal-burning power plants.


I love posting new technologies that could change our energy systems. Photosynthesis is the root source of life as we know it; the 'energy' that runs the planet. If we can develop this further, it could help solve climate change and generate fuel or food in the future.


Phil said...

"If we can develop this further, it could help solve climate change and generate fuel or food in the future."

Or we could just legalize cannabis hemp. ;-)

Demeur said...

This is indeed a hopeful technology in that it could eliminate the need for "cap and trade". Coal companies would be fools not to get on board in that they could actually profit from the pollution they produce.

pygalgia said...

Phil: I'm certainly pro-hemp, but it's not the only (or even main) answer.
Demeur: I smell a new business opportunity here...