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Artificial photosynthesis – an A* idea

August 23, 2013


Spending time this year helping my eldest daughter revise for her biology, physics and chemistry GCSEs has rekindled my interest in basic scientific principles.

One that crosses over all disciplines and came up repeatedly in the revision notes is photosynthesis. It is such a fundamental process in our daily lives and sits at the heart of the climate change challenges we are facing increasingly as our CO2 emissions continue to climb to ever more unpredictable and potentially dangerous levels.

This week a new report highlights that European forests are reaching saturation point as efficient CO2 sinks and calls on governments and forestry commissions to recognise the issue and take appropriate action. This is yet another scenario that highlights the complexity of climate change science but also prompts some to take a pessimistic view on the future, particularly on matters where politics are involved.

One recent view that created a lot of commentary and debate is that of Professor Stephen Emmott whose short but blunt book 10 Billion has clearly polarised opinion.  I was inclined to take notice of his views as the area of research his laboratory focuses on is artificial photosynthesis and the more I understand about this, the more it looks like one of the better potential answers to climate change challenges.

Progress on such concepts hit the scientific press a few years ago but developments are still very much in their infancy as this recent article suggests

We’re just getting off the ground, we’re not flying 747s yet

The last year has seen some encouraging results with the Berkeley Lab creating a fully integrated microfluidic test-bed for solar-driven electrochemical energy conversion systems …

With enough energy in one hour’s worth of global sunlight to meet all human needs for a year, solar technologies are an ideal solution. However, a major challenge is to develop efficient ways to convert solar energy into electrochemical energy on a massive scale. A key to meeting this challenge may lie in the ability to test such energy conversion schemes on the micro-scale.

Elsewhere, quantum physics and nanotechnology appear to be offering new possibilities to address some of the challenges in making artificial photosynthesis viable on a massive scale …

Quantum dots not only absorb the light but also are far more durable than previous light-absorbing materials. The new approach also has the advantage of not requiring any precious metals, so it might be relatively cheap.

With a current work focus on high performance windows and doors that help conserve and, in some cases, generate energy, I was also intrigued to see what this company is doing with Dye Solar Cell technology

DSC windows will not only provide electricity, but can also moderate harsh sunlight and provide thermal and noise insulation

All in all, some encouraging and intriguing progress in a field that looks set to deliver some potentially world changing technologies.

Beyond my rekindled interest in the sciences, I’m very pleased to report that my daughter has achieved A* results in biology and physics and an A in chemistry and will be starting her biology A level next month.
So here are five other A* ideas that I’d love to see the latest generation of scientists apply their young minds and learning to as they progress through college, university and beyond …


  •  1. Algae/custom biofuels

Addressing the issues created by biofuels such as corn ethanol, which waste vast areas of farmland and crops that could be better used for food, is the rapidly developing area of custom microbe and algae biofuels that can be grown in tanks.

  • 2. Thin film solar

Nanotechnology is opening up the possibilities of turning many more surfaces into solar energy converters. Some companies are already at a point where they can ‘print’ viable and efficient solar panels.

  • 3. Distributed fuel cells

Fuel cells are devices that convert fuel into electricity through a clean electro-chemical process rather than dirty combustion. This type of solid oxide fuel cell technology for example produces clean, reliable, affordable electricity on-site .

  • 4. Smart metering

Smart meters connected to a network can relay that sort of information instantly, giving utilities and customers alike a real-time picture of how much power is being used at any given moment. This type of smart grid standards-based, IPv6 networking platform makes a lot of sense and I somehow suspect we will all be shocked at just how much energy we waste as we go about our daily lives.

  • 5. Sustainable transport systems

As a recent post on here explains, I think the time is right for highly efficient single occupancy vehicles to start reducing carbon emissions and improve traffic congestion. Development of revolutionary vehicles like the Lit Motors C1 continues to move forward steadily and I’d love to see other organisations focusing on addressing our over-crowded roads and making some serious dents in transport related CO2 emissions in innovative ways.

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