Researchers at the Department of Energy have made a significant advance in artificial photosynthesis. Utilizing bacteria and nanotechnology, the team was able to create a system which converts carbon dioxide into useful chemicals such as acetate. Currently, the system is not very effective or efficient–it can only do about as much work as a single leaf–but the potential of the project is immense.
The process yields about a 0.38% conversion rate. According to Peidong Yang, who leads the team, they are working on upping that to 3%. At around 10% efficiency, they think the process could be commercially viable.
Converting 10% of carbon dioxide may not seem very impressive, but it works out to quite a bit. The chemicals produced include those used in liquid fuels and pharmaceuticals, and the bulk could be put to use in PHB, a renewable and biodegradable plastic.
Carbon dioxide is essential to plants, which use photosynthesis to trap it and convert it into energy with the help of water and sunlight. Unfortunately, there is way to much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thanks to human activity, especially burning fossil fuels. In fact, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are the highest they’ve been in three million years, and there’s no way plants can keep up with that. As a result, that carbon contributes to global warming and makes oceans more acidic, neither of which is good.
But if we can develop technology that helps reduce carbon dioxide, that will go a long way toward improving things. There are already some systems in place for reducing carbon emissions, but many require finding a way to store that carbon dioxide, which is a problem in and of itself. The beauty of photosynthesis is that it removes carbon dioxide entirely and converts it into something else. So an efficient artificial system of photosynthesis, even if it only operates at 10% efficiency, could make a huge difference.
And who knows, in time, it might even be as good at its job as a real plant.