Researchers exploring new ways to utilise sunlight for green energy production

Leaf photosynthesis

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, solar energy is the fastest growing and most affordable source of new electricity in America. Over three million installations of solar panels have been built across the country—with one million being built in the last two years – to capture sunlight.  

LSU researchers, however, are exploring new ways to use the oldest energy source on our planet to create truly green energy on demand: chiefly, via photosynthesis. 

The general idea of photosynthesis—a plant’s ability to absorb sunlight and use that energy to make sugars (biomass) from water and carbon dioxide—is well-known. But the exact mechanics are still being discovered.  

David Vinyard, assistant professor in LSU’s Department of Biological Sciences, is tracking the photosynthesis process atom by atom, electron by electron, and hopes that it could provide a new method of harnessing the sun’s power.

“It is shocking how much we don’t know about how nature converts light energy to chemical energy considering it is happening at such a massive scale,” Vinyard said. “If we can learn the chemical and physical mechanisms used by nature, we can give those blueprints to chemists and engineers to develop clean energy conversion devices. Essentially, an artificial leaf.” 

An artificial leaf could be an inexpensive and efficient solar fuel cell. It could use light energy to strip electrons and hydrogen atoms from water, which then could be recombined to create hydrogen gas, a green fuel. Today, about 95 per cent of all hydrogen is produced from natural gas, a fossil fuel, while an artificial leaf could produce it on demand using only water and sunlight. 

Another important component about going the photosynthetic route to create clean energy, according to Vinyard, is that natural photosynthesis uses only Earth-abundant materials. Many catalytic systems being developed by chemists and engineers still rely on rare elements like platinum, rhodium, and palladium, which are not only expensive but are also only found in select places. 

“If we can learn how natural photosynthesis splits water using sunlight, then we could apply this knowledge towards the development of inexpensive and efficient solar fuel cells,” Vinyard said. “In emergencies, fuel could be generated on demand using only water and sunlight. One day—hopefully soon—this type of technology could help us transition away from the widespread use of fossil fuels.” 

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