Hydrogen From Artificial Photosynthesis: Future For Fuel Cells?

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Tree [Image: Flickr user Ward.]

Tree [Image: Flickr user Ward.]

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For the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen is remarkably hard to come by on good ol' planet earth.

While the techniques for extracting it are easy enough to understand, the energy required to do so is often significant--meaning hydrogen fuel cell vehicles aren't as squeaky-clean and perfect as they seem.

New research in the UK could change that however, as three universities take a literal and metaphorical leaf from the plant world, in order to generate hydrogen.

According to Wired, a collaborative project between the University of East Anglia, the University of Cambridge and the University of Leeds seeks to artificially replicate the process of photosynthesis to generate hydrogen.

Now you might have spotted the deliberate mistake--during photosynthesis, plants use hydrogen, along with water and sunlight, to create sugars for the plant, and oxygen as a waste product.

The research would adjust the process slightly, using light energy to create hydrogen that could then be used for fuel.

The project is being led by biophysical chemist Julea Butt, from the University of East Anglia.

In a process which sounds like science-fiction, part of the artificial photosynthesis will be achieved by fitting microbes with what amount to tiny solar panels.

“These will harness sunlight and drive the production of hydrogen, from which the technologies to release energy on demand are well-advanced" said Butt.

It's early days yet, but inspiration from the plant world could lead to the production of less energy-intensive hydrogen--perhaps making fuel-cell vehicles more viable than they are today.

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