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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Artifical Photosysnthesis

Artifical Photosysnthesis

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Saturday, May 19, 2018/Categories: sustainability

                                                        Artifical Leaf Concept (credit: CalTech)

Cheap hydrogen that can power fuel cells has been a dream of electric car proponents for years. It is abundant, sustainable, and can be produced from a variety of sources. However, the gas is not readily or cheaply available. That may change if research on artificial photosynthesis pans out.

Artificial Leaf Concept  (credit: JCAP/Nature)

The goal of CalTech's Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) is to use sunlight to produce hydrogen more efficiently than can be produced by natural photosynthesis. Early single-celled organisms evolved this natural capability to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. This process produced all the oxygen allowing for the rest of 'life on Earth' to evolve. In the CalTech labs, the researchers are trying to replicate this natural process with electronics versus green leaves. Some progress has been reported. 

Splitting Water into Hydrogen & Oxygen  (credit: JCAP/Nature)

Back in the early 1970's, I observed an early attempt to create artificial photosynthesis at the University of Colorado. Physicists there thought it would happen in 4 years but 40 years on the research is still a long way from delivering it's promise of cheap hydrogen. As one investigator noted in a CalTech report from Nature:

This is a really, really difficult, and challenging problem. The payback would be huge, but it's not as simple as everyone wanted it to be when we started playing in this area 40 years ago.”

Nature doesn't give up its secrets from four billion of years of evolution easily. If the promise of unlimited, sustainable, and commercially inexpensive hydrogen is to happen we need to hope the CalTech team can learn these secrets faster. Carbon pollution continues to rise and cars still run on liquid hydrocarbons.



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