Artificial Photosynthesis: Why Bill Gates Calls the Potential “Magical”

Harnessing the power of photosynthesis may be able to produce all the hydrogen for energy we need.

(Flickr user DM)


When we think of energy from sunlight, we usually think of solar power. But there may be another, even more exciting possibility that scientist have been working on: artificial photosynthesis (AP). If it can be made to work, it would result in hydrogen that could be used as is, or combined with other molecules into liquid form. "If it works it would be magical," Bill Gates told Reuters recently, “because with liquids you don't have the intermittency problem batteries. You can put the liquid into a big tank and burn it whenever you want.”

The upshot: It’s hoped that AP could go a long way towards meeting our energy needs for operating running our cars and even powering our urban areas.

Professor Leone Spiccia from the School of Chemistry at Monash tells World Economic Forum, “Electrochemical splitting of water could provide a cheap, clean and renewable source of hydrogen as the ultimately sustainable fuel.

We all studied photosynthesis in school: It’s the process by which plants convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. The idea of artificial photosynthesis is to use sunlight to split up water into hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. It can potentially even work with river water. It’s the hydrogen AP can produce that’s most intriguing for energy purposes.

The hydrogen produced by AP could be used directly by fuel cells in the electric cars now being produced. And re-combining AP’s hydrogen, water, and carbon in the right balance — four parts hydrogen, one part oxygen and one part carbon — produce methanol, the simplest hydrocarbon that can power combustion engines. In addition, hydrogen can be used as a form of cheap storage for energy captured by rooftop solar panels. 

The main issue holding back the use of AP is how inefficiently photosynthesis works in nature. Only about 1% of water and carbon is converted into carbohydrates in plants. In lab conditions, however, that efficiency has already been upped to around 10%. And now, researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, have used AP to produce hydrogen with 22% efficiency. “This latest breakthrough is significant in that it takes us one step further towards this becoming a reality,” says Spiccia.

(MONASH UNIVERSITY FACULTY OF SCIENCE)

As for Gates, he’s put together the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of private investors from across the globe. The idea is for them to provide research seed money that supplements basic research funded by governments. He considers the complacent assumptions of the energy sector to be ripe for disruption. "We need to surprise them that these alternative ways of doing energy can come along and come along in an economic way," he says. It’s imperative that new forms of energy like AP are developed. "If we are to avoid the levels of warming that are dangerous we need to move at full speed,” he says.

(THEGATESNOTES)

Higher ed isn’t immune to COVID-19, but the crisis will make it stronger

The pandemic reminds us that our higher education system, with all its flaws, remains a key part of our strategic reserve.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • America's higher education system is under great scrutiny as it adapts to a remote-learning world. These criticisms will only make higher ed more innovative.
  • While there are flaws in the system and great challenges ahead, higher education has adapted quickly to allow students to continue learning. John Katzman, CEO of online learning organization Noodle Partners, believes this is cause for optimism not negativity.
  • Universities are pillars of scientific research on the COVID-19 frontlines, they bring facts in times of uncertainty and fake news, and, in a bad economy, education is a personal floatation device.
Keep reading Show less

The mystery of the Bermuda Triangle may finally be solved

Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.

Surprising Science

One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.

Keep reading Show less

Should churches be considered essential businesses?

A debate is raging inside and outside of churches.

Demonstrators holding signs demanding their church to reopen, protest during a rally to re-open California and against Stay-At-Home directives on May 1, 2020 in San Diego, California.

Photo by Sandy Huffaker / AFP via Getty Images
Culture & Religion
  • Over 1,200 pastors in California claim they're opening their churches this week against state orders.
  • While church leaders demand independence from governmental oversight, 9,000 Catholic churches have received small business loans.
  • A number of re-opened churches shut back down after members and clergy became infected with the novel coronavirus.
Keep reading Show less

What can your microwave tell you about your health?

An MIT system uses wireless signals to measure in-home appliance usage to better understand health tendencies.

John Moore/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

For many of us, our microwaves and dishwashers aren't the first thing that come to mind when trying to glean health information, beyond that we should (maybe) lay off the Hot Pockets and empty the dishes in a timely way.

Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…