By combining nanoscience and biology, researchers led by scientists at University of California, Berkeley, have taken a big step towards creating artificial plants that make gasoline and natural gas using only sunlight.
The findings suggest that such “liquid” fuels from artificial plants could one day be used to heat our homes or run our cars without adding any greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Through a process called photosynthesis, green plants and some bacteria can turn water and carbon dioxide into sugar, an organic fuel.
The new research is a major advance towards synthetic photosynthesis, a type of solar power based on the ability of plants to transform sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugars, the study said.
Instead of sugars, however, synthetic photosynthesis seeks to produce liquid fuels that can be stored for months or years and distributed through existing energy infrastructure.
The team of researchers, led by Professor Peidong Yang, has already created an artificial leaf that produces methane, the primary component of natural gas, using a combination of semiconducting nanowires and bacteria.
The new research builds on a similar hybrid system that yielded butanol, a component in gasoline, and a variety of biochemical building blocks.
“We are good at generating electrons from light efficiently, but chemical synthesis always limited our systems in the past. One purpose of this experiment was to show we could integrate bacterial catalysts with semiconductor technology. This lets us understand and optimise a truly synthetic photosynthesis system,” Yang said.