A new way to capture the power of the sun and successfully split water into hydrogen and oxygen by altering how plants conduct photosynthesis has been invented by scientists.
Plants convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis, which releases oxygen into the air when plants split water molecules to gain energy.
Almost all of the Earth’s oxygen, which animals need to breathe, is produced via photosynthesis – and hydrogen is a potentially unlimited source of renewable energy.
In a study led by researchers at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, scientists have used semi-artificial photosynthesis to develop new ways to capture the sun’s energy.
The research could revolutionise renewable energy production, and the paper published in Nature Energy explains how the scientists used solar energy to split water molecules.
Using biological components and human technology, the team used natural sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Katarzyna Soko, the first author on the paper and a PhD student at St John’s, said: « Natural photosynthesis is not efficient because it has evolved merely to survive so it makes the bare minimum amount of energy needed – around 1-2% of what it could potentially convert and store. »
Although artificial photosynthesis has been around for decades, it isn’t used for renewable energy because of its dependence on expensive and toxic catalysts – meaning it can’t be used on an industrial scale.
The study is part of a growing field of semi-artificial photosynthesis using enzymes instead of these catalysts.
Ms Soko and her colleagues improved on the amount of energy produces and stored, as well as managed to reactivate a process in algae that has been dormant for millennia.
Ms Soko explained: « 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. »
The researcher said that she hopes her findings will contribute towards new inventions helping people capture renewable solar energy.
Dr Erwin Reisner, the head of the Reisner Laboratory, and a fellow of St John’s College – as well as one of the paper’s authors – described the research as a « milestone ».