Artificial plant leaves to turn sunlight into natural gas

A new method of synthetic photosynthesis, through the use of nanotechnology and bacteria, promises to allow sunlight to be to transformed into methane

A microscopic image capturing the processes involved in a revolutionary method for extracting methane. The technique, developed by scientists at the University of Berkeley, California, could significantly change the energy sector

A group of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have created a way to turn sunlight into liquid fuel. The team, led by Peidong Yang, a professor of chemistry at Berkeley and co-director of the school’s Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute, have created an artificial plant leaf which is able to turn sunlight into methane – the main component of natural gas.

The research is part of attempts to mimic plant photosynthesis whereby plants turn sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugars

The research is part of attempts to mimic plant photosynthesis whereby plants turn sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugars. This synthetic photosynthesis, however, aims to replicate this process to produce liquid fuels such as methane.

The science behind the breakthrough, which was detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, makes use of nanoscale semiconductors and genetically-modified bacteria. According to Alan Brown of Kavli Foundation, writing for Live Science, “The system uses long, nanoscale filaments to turn sunlight into electrons, which bacteria use to convert carbon dioxide and water into butanol fuel and more complex molecules such as acetate, a chemical building block, and amorphadiene.” Effectively, nanotechnology is used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, and in turn the hydrogen is transformed into methane by genetically modified bacteria.

The use of both nanotechnology and bacteria means an integration of both hybrid inorganic and biological systems were put to use. In a roundtable discussion on the new breakthrough, Yang told the Kavli Foundation that “one purpose of this experiment was to show we could integrate bacterial catalysts with semiconductor technology. This lets us understand and optimize a truly synthetic photosynthesis system.”

Thomas Moore, another roundtable participant and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University, speculated on the future potential the technological poses for human energy use. “Burning fossil fuels is putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere much faster than natural photosynthesis can take it out,” he claimed. “A system that pulls every carbon that we burn out of the air and converts it into fuel is truly carbon neutral.”

A diagram of the experiment
A diagram of the experiment
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